The hiring of Julen Lopetegui as Real Madrid manager was a peculiar one. Of course, the circumstances around his appointment were farcical, with Lopetegui sacked as Spain boss on the eve of the World Cup. It wasn’t just the circumstances that made the hiring peculiar, though.
Before pitching up at the Santiago Bernabeu Lopetegui had been a manager at just one club side, Porto. His coaching experience beyond that was purely at national team level, working through the youth ranks with Spain before being handed the senior team job. Even at senior team level, though, Lopetegui never managed at a major tournament.
It was a bold appointment from Real Madrid, a club who usually only go for the most experienced and most proven managers. But we are already seeing the influence of Lopetegui in the way the capital side have started the season, both in La Liga and the Champions League.
Real Madrid might have dropped points away to Athletic Bilbao last weekend, they have made an otherwise perfect start to the La Liga season, backing that up with an impressive and comprehensive 3-0 win over Roma in the Champions League on Wednesday night.
That win over Roma was marked by goals from Gareth Bale, Isco and Mariano Diaz. This went some way to illustrating the difference Lopetegui has made at the Santiago Bernabeu in a very short space of time. While Zinedine Zidane’s record as Real Madrid manager cannot be questioned, winning three straight Champions League titles at the club, he didn’t always made the most of his squad.
Marco Asensio, for instance, stagnated under Zidane. Isco struggled to find a place in the Real Madrid team too, with Bale and Karim Benzema also stunted in their development. Zidane knew how to win knockout games, but there were a number in his squad who were seemingly unhappy and certainly under utilised by the Frenchman.
Dani Ceballos perhaps provides the starkest illustration of this so far. Had Zidane stayed over the summer, it’s likely the young midfielder would have left Real Madrid, either on loan or on a permanent deal. Ceballos might be billed as one of the stars of Spain’s future, but Zidane didn’t seem to be a fan, giving the former Real Betis player very few opportunities last season.
Now, however, Ceballos has been installed as a key player for both club and country, starting in Spain’s 6-0 Nations League demolition of Croatia last week. Ceballos has some work to do to nail down his position for Real Madrid, but his early season performances mean he has certainly made an impression.
Lopetegui is a maximiser. That’s why he was so good as Spain manager, where signings cannot be made. Lopetegui is now maximising Real Madrid’s squad. Even in the post-Ronaldo age, they still boast so much quality and that is now coming to the fore under their new manager.
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