Does Julen Lopetegui Deserve the Sack at Real Madrid?

Dean Jones@DeanJonesBRFootball Insider at Bleacher ReportOctober 23, 2018

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 22: coach Julen Lopetegui of Real Madrid during the   Training session Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu on October 22, 2018 in Madrid Spain (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates /Getty Images)
Soccrates Images/Getty Images

A simple glimpse at the headlines from Monday's Champions League press conferences seemed to leave little doubt that Julen Lopetegui is a dead man walking.

In Real Madrid's briefing ahead of Tuesday's fixture with Viktoria Plzen, the boss heard Isco launch a strong defence of his position, stating that if Lopetegui is sacked, the players should be too.

Meanwhile, more than 900 miles away in Manchester, the same topic was discussed as Jose Mourinho was quizzed about him to stepping in once the former Spain head coach is axed.

It was evidence of just how brutal this game can be, but Lopetegui seems to be taking it in his stride. His thick skin is going to serve him well if his team's slump in form continues.

Madrid had not won any of their last five games heading into Tuesday's European fixture and have been through a spell of failing to score in 481 minutes during that period.

This is not what Lopetegui had in mind when he took the job in June—but you have to wonder how much of this is really his fault.

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 20: supporters of Real  Madrid, Thibaut Courtois of Real Madrid, Luka Modric of Real Madrid, Roger Marti of Levante UD during the La Liga Santander  match between Real Madrid v Levante at the Santiago Bernabeu on October 20, 2018 i
Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Problems inside Real Madrid can be traced back to the end of last season, when Zinedine Zidane stepped aside. The telling factors in their downfall have been three-fold.

There is the case of whether Lopetegui was truly the right man to step in, that's fair. But on top of that there was the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo, the team's talisman, and the fact there were signs of their struggles on the pitch before Zidane moved on.

"I think it was expected that Real Madrid would have problems this season," says Marcelo Bechler of Esporte Interativo. "They lost a player that used to score 50 goals a season. If you lose 50 goals, you lose a lot—and they didn't replace that.

"The coach changing is also a problem, and I think more because Lopetegui is not able to manage the team of Real Madrid quite like Zidane did—he was good. And the third point is that the team was already showing their weakness last season. Remember that they finished 17 points behind Barcelona in La Liga."

Madrid finished third in the league table and there was also a Copa del Rey defeat to Leganes that sticks out as a moment when Zidane may have sensed the future was not all that bright.

"Zidane saw this coming", suggests Marca journalist Chris Winterburn, reflecting on the change of manager. "The squad needed a much more in-depth reshuffle, especially in attack, and Florentino Perez simply didn't agree."

Sources told B/R at the time that Zidane wanted Gareth Bale to be sold and three or four proven players to be brought in. He was concerned that the motivation and drive of his squad was drying up and wanted players to fear for their place in the starting lineup.

He left with his reputation intact and his concerns have started to appear. A summer recruitment drive brought in Thibaut Courtois, Alvaro Odriozola, Vinicius Junior and Mariano. It's not quite what Lopetegui will have had in mind, and he may not be around long enough to see the club president deliver the next Galactico.

"Perez continues to wait for Neymar," Winterburn tells B/R. "It is a pursuit which seems futile when you assess their accounts for 2018, as well as the upcoming Bernabeu redevelopment.

"Real Madrid were always going to suffer a drop in consistency, it was inevitable and had started last season, however there was an innate, almost subconscious, complacency within such a successful squad and that is showing right now.

"It's clearly not a tactical issue as Lopetegui showed his ability with the Spanish national team, using many of the same players, it simply hasn't worked and the club have a job on to save their season."

KIEV, UKRAINE - MAY 26: Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane embraces Cristiano Ronaldo following the UEFA Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool at the NSC Olimpiyskiy on May 26, 2018 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo by Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty
Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images

Anyone associated with Madrid could see they were not untouchable, even as Zidane won his third successive Champions League title. After all, it was a spirit, desire and belief—along with the magic of Ronaldo—that truly inspired much of their success.

Last season, Zidane's lineup was reaching an average age of 29, and with the star man also now gone, it is starting to feel like a team that needs an injection.

"The first signs of trouble came when Cristiano Ronaldo was allowed to leave and a first line forward wasn't brought in to help cover the shortfall," says Marca's Winterburn. "That's irrespective of how impressive Mariano Diaz was at Lyon.

"Putting faith in Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, two players who have been notoriously streaky over the last 12 months, was a gamble, and it was always likely the team would struggle in attack.

"Furthermore, and this may seem like a minor point, but Lopetegui not entirely knowing how best to deal with the Keylor Navas-Courtois situation hasn't helped. The Belgian should have been instilled as the No. 1 right away, but the initial indecision, albeit solved now, didn't help tranquility at Valdebebas."

Sources in Madrid are adamant that Lopetegui is already fighting a lost battle. They suggest it is only a matter of days before he loses his job because the club hierarchy have been so stunned by the lack of character and drive shown this season.

The man himself is refusing to be written off, though.

"What I've learned about this club is to fight, that is the DNA of this club," Lopetegui said in his Monday press briefing, via BBC Sport.

"That's what we're going to do, fight, both the players and the coaching staff."

It's too harsh to simply say Madrid have not been good enough under Lopetegui. The truth is the team should be in a better situation.

Statistics show they have scored just one goal from 108 shots in their past five matches—which seems incredible. But it's more a lack of leadership that stands out. Against Levante in the weekend's 2-1 defeat, only Marcelo seemed to show the spirit and drive that was such a trait under Zidane.

Twitter user MAJ is one of social media's most thorough sources of Real Madrid news and he identifies misfortune as one of Lopetegui's biggest issues.

"The first and only issue so far has been sheer bad luck," he told B/R. "The clear chances created and expected goals stats may be hazy, but how else would you describe being scoreless for 481 minutes and only scoring one goal from 108 shots? On top of that there have been a host of individual defensive errors.

"His team has done everything but score, which in the end is all that matters."

That is true. Every crime story needs a villain, and Lopetegui seems the easiest man to blame on the scene.

"I've been following Real Madrid seven days a week for over two decades," MAJ continues. "Four losses in five games, three of which were versus teams like CSKA Moscow, Alaves and Levante, is something Florentino won't be able to ignore. The writing's on the wall for Julen unless somehow we convincingly beat Barca and suddenly move just one point behind them in La Liga."

Spanish outlet Marca claim it will take something special like five straight wins to turn the situation around.

If Lopetegui is still in charge for Sunday's Clasico, it will be the perfect opportunity to show he is not done in this job just yet.

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