MADRID — Perhaps the gods will be looking down knowingly at the two coaches—Real Madrid's Julen Lopetegui and Barcelona's Ernesto Valverde—during Sunday's match between the Clasico rivals at the Camp Nou.
In April 2015, Real Madrid tried to hire Valverde as the replacement for Carlo Ancelotti. Valverde was coaching Athletic Bilbao at the time, but his contract was set to expire at the end of the season, so in theory he was available. He was the first man Real Madrid offered the job to, but he turned them down. He'd made a gentleman's agreement with Athletic's president, Josu Urrutia, to stay on with the Basque club, and he'd promised as much to several Athletic players.
Lopetegui is less measured. When Real Madrid contacted him about their vacant post in June—less than a month after he had signed a two-year contract extension as coach of the Spain national team—he jumped ship. Luis Rubiales, head of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, was furious at the betrayal and fired him immediately a day before the FIFA World Cup kicked off in Russia.
The move hasn't paid off for Lopetegui, who squandered a good chance to lead Spain to a World Cup title—the team ultimately crashed out to hosts Russia on penalties in the Round of 16 under the stewardship of former Real Madrid captain Fernando Hierro.
In Spain's capital, his run of form has been woeful. Before an insipid 2-1 win over Viktoria Plzen in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday, Real had lost four games out of five, including an embarrassing 2-1 defeat to lowly Levante in the Santiago Bernabeu last weekend.
"There's an element of divine justice here—Real Madrid and Lopetegui sinned very badly in announcing that he was switching to Real Madrid when he was Spain national team coach [on the eve of] the World Cup," says John Carlin, author of the fly-on-the-wall Real Madrid book White Angels. "To use a Spanish Catholic terminology, it was a mortal sin for which they're getting due punishment. The birth of Lopetegui's Real Madrid project was not auspicious. What Real Madrid did was unforgivably arrogant."
Lopetegui was also taking on more than he bargained for. Within weeks of being unveiled as coach, the club sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus. Suddenly Lopetegui was shorn of a forward who guaranteed 50 goals a season.
Instead of replacing Ronaldo with a top-class striker like Robert Lewandowski or Mauro Icardi, club president Florentino Perez bought Mariano on the cheap (€23 million, according to AS.com). The former Real Madrid youth academy player has only played one full season of top-flight football—in France's Ligue 1 with Lyon. He has yet to register a goal in La Liga in four games this season.
"Because Cristiano Ronaldo is gone, a kind of hysteria has been unleashed around the club," says Alfredo Relano, editor of Spanish newspaper Diario AS. "It's quite simple—Cristiano used to score a goal a game, and they haven't substituted Cristiano. Less goals, worse results. Lopetegui has what we call 'poder mezquino'—small-minded power. He doesn't have the power to fix things. He has a kind of power over the team, but he has no solutions for what is happening outside it."
Relano says that Zinedine Zidane—who sensationally stepped down as Real Madrid manager during the summer—could see the writing on the wall. Real Madrid haven't invested significantly in their squad over the last five years. They haven't bought a galactico since spending €90 million to sign James Rodriguez from Monaco in 2014. Over the last five seasons, they have made an €18.7 million profit in trading players, which is unheard of for Europe's aristocratic clubs. Barcelona, for example, have spent €807.7 million buying in players in that period, more than double Real Madrid's outlay.
Instead, Perez is keeping his money for a €575 million stadium refurbishment. "Your average Real Madrid fan is saying 'Rather than building a roof, why not spend that money on some top players?'" says Carlin. "It sounds like a legitimate argument. Is it necessary to have a roof over a stadium in Madrid? It's not Manchester. It's not raining every day."
The effects of the lack of investment can be seen on the pitch. Real Madrid have only won two league titles over the last decade. Last season, they finished 17 points adrift of champions Barcelona. Real Madrid's players are said to be disgruntled by the obsession Perez has with signing Neymar. They wonder why Perez failed to give Ronaldo the contract renewal he was looking for, which opened the door for him to leave.
"When Florentino pushed Cristiano Ronaldo to go, by not giving him as good an offer as the one he got from Juve, in some way he did it thinking about bringing in Neymar," says Diego Torres of Spain's El Pais. "Florentino offered Neymar €50 million net per season to get him to Real Madrid [this summer], but Neymar preferred to stay at PSG.
"The whole story was revealed to Real Madrid's dressing room because Marcelo and Casemiro are friends of Neymar and he told them the president just offered him €50 million net a season. So the conclusion the players make is ... instead of being grateful for the effort they have done in winning him four Champions League titles, what [Perez] does is try to buy a player that hasn't really proved anything, that has been one year doing nothing in Paris and is well known for not being professional."
Real Madrid's players have been further unsettled by the moves Perez—who eschews the use of a director of football to make signings, unlike most other top European clubs—has made to the squad. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has come in to job-share with Keylor Navas—Courtois starts in the league, Navas in the UEFA Champions League—and Alvaro Odriozola was ushered in to threaten Dani Carvajal's position at right-back.
"When it comes to this bad atmosphere in the dressing room, Lopetegui is the man that puts the cherry on the top of the cake because he has started making not-very-intelligent decisions, like resting Luka Modric, leaving out Marcelo, replacing Carvajal with Odriozola," says Torres. "He wants to take out Toni Kroos so Dani Ceballos can play. Lopetegui's movements make the players think he's come to execute this team-renewal project and make a transition to younger players. That's what some players see in Lopetegui, so they have lost respect in him, which is what helps to create bad results."
Crucially, Lopetegui lacks the authority of a coach like Zidane to make these changes. Last season, for example, Zidane was happy to leave Gareth Bale—Perez's world-record signing—whistling in the wind on the sub's bench. Few questioned his decision. Bale, who is under pressure to assume Ronaldo's mantle as the reference point for the team, has been underwhelming this season while again struggling with injury and scoring only two goals in eight games.
"It was Florentino's dream to see Bale as a player who was strong enough to become a 'franchise player,' but it hasn't worked out," says Relano. "He gets a lot of injuries and he also is very apprehensive. If he has a tiny pain, he disappears. Also he doesn't have the level of quality Florentino thought he had. It was a mistake to think he could compensate for the exit of Cristiano. And now we see that's the case."
The press in Spain have been tossing around names to replace Lopetegui. It seems like it will only be a matter of time before he's sacked. His potential successors include Antonio Conte, Laurent Blanc and former Real Madrid player Michael Laudrup. Or the club could again make an in-house appointment, such as reserve team coach Santiago Solari, as a caretaker manager. Vicente del Bosque, for instance, was installed three times during the 1990s in an interim role, while Zidane was promoted to the top job after serving as reserve-team coach.
Torres believes, though, that a change of trainer won't alter the troubled relationship Real Madrid's players have with the club's directors and president. There are more systemic forces at play. League leaders Barcelona, meanwhile, are not without problems. Lionel Messi is out injured with a fractured arm.
Ousmane Dembele, who was signed for a €105 million (excluding add-ons) fee last year in a rush to find Neymar's replacement, is reportedly being insubordinate. According to Diario Sport, he was 25 minutes late turning up for the midweek tie against Inter Milan at the Camp Nou, though the club have disputed the report. He spent the game as an unused sub and wasn't even asked to warm up during the game.
Barcelona—who comfortably defeated Inter Milan 2-0 with another stellar performance from new midfield metronome Arthur—should still have enough to prevail. Carlin is unsure, however. Form guides go out of the window when it comes to big derby games, and especially so with the Clasico.
"Even though Real Madrid have had this disastrous start to the season, they are still a team that has so much quality and so many stars," says Carlin. "If they really go for it, they may give us a surprise against Barcelona this weekend. With Clasicos, results often do not go according to form. They inhabit an ecosystem all of its own."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz