On the morning after Julen Lopetegui was fired as Real Madrid's coach, newspaper Diario AS had a picture on its cover page of his replacement, Santiago Solari, leaning against a dugout and looking off into the middle distance.
Dressed in a suit and tie, with a handkerchief placed immaculately in his breast pocket, Solari looked like a study in sophistication. He'll need all his smarts to survive in the job. Under the picture ran the headline: "Solari: Until Another One Comes Along."
Since 1988, Real Madrid—who have made Solari permanent in the role after a two-week spell as interim coach—have ploughed through 30 coaches. During the same period, Barcelona, for example, have had 14 managers, Juventus 13 and Manchester United, five.
Things have gone well for Solari so far. His team have scored 15 goals en route to four wins in four games, but the opposition has not been stern. The victories have come against the likes of Melilla, Valladolid and Czech side Viktoria Plzen. Solari has, however, enjoyed better fortune than Lopetegui.
"There's really no difference [with Lopetegui's team]," says Ramon Calderon, a former president of Real Madrid, who was a director during Solari's playing career with the club from 2000-2005. "We've been lucky now, but we weren't under Lopetegui. The team is the same one. The strategy, the tactics haven't changed. In 14 days, you cannot change much. It was unfair that Lopetegui had to leave. I'm sure with him things would be the same, but it's true that Solari is the one who will take the credit for it now.
"I know Santi very well. He's a good player, a good team-mate in the dressing room. Everyone liked him. He can become a good coach. It's clear that he hasn't got experience, but it was the same case with Zinedine Zidane and he managed to win three Champions League titles and one La Liga. I hope he can do something similar, but no one can predict what he's going to do with this team. We'll see over the next four or five months if he's able to do the same as Zidane did. It's a question mark."
Solari has laid down subtle markers by benching Isco and Marco Asensio. He's shown finer political instincts than Lopetegui by currying favour with the president, Florentino Perez. Solari has chosen, for example, to start Thibaut Courtois, a favourite of Perez, in the Champions League.
He has given more minutes to the 18-year-old Vinicius Jr., who is also an important presidential signing; the Brazilian scored his first La Liga goal against Valladolid under Solari's watch. It remains to be seen, however, if Solari can achieve the power and influence that helped underpin Zidane's success.
"Zidane was a mythical figure in the club," says Juanma Trueba, a Spanish football writer. "He was able to make important decisions. The first thing he did was to promote Casemiro to the starting XI, which Rafa Benitez wasn't permitted to do. It was key to Real Madrid winning the Champions League in 2016. Solari is an employee of the club. He hasn't more expectations than doing things he considers are beneficial for the club. If that means Vinicius playing more, he will give more minutes to Vinicius. Solari understands the spirit of the club, so he played Courtois in the Champions League.
"Solari is temporary in the sense that he expects to continue in the club when he finishes being the trainer of Real Madrid. The figure of Zidane was more exalted than Solari, not just within the club but also with the players. I'm sure in training the players were impressed with the way Zidane could trap the ball or shoot at goal. He had a moral authority over the players, which I am sure Solari doesn't have. Solari will try to have a good relationship with all of them, but he won't have the power or influence over the club's players that Zidane had over the group."
Solari will also have to contend with club captain Sergio Ramos, who has assumed more power at the club since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer, becoming the team's unrivalled leader on the pitch—even to the extent of taking the team's penalties. Ramos has become a key figure in the power machinations at the club, too, having filled some of the vacuum left by Zidane's exit and Lopetegui's weak reign.
Ramos reportedly played a part, for instance, in scuppering the deal to bring in Antonio Conte as head coach after the embarrassing 5-1 defeat to Barcelona in Lopetegui's final game in charge. Conte was Perez's first choice to take on the job, as he wanted a disciplinarian to wrest back control from senior players in the dressing room like Ramos.
"What I remember Ramos said [about the prospect of Conte as coach] was that 'respect is won; it's not imposed,' but I think it's the right way to speak about the new coach," says Calderon. "I don't think Ramos meant Conte. He was referring to any coach who came to impose a new, rigid discipline. It's true that the last five Champions League titles we won came from coaches like Vicente del Bosque, Carlo Ancelotti or Zidane who didn't need to rule with an iron fist."
In challenging the wishes of Perez, however, Ramos is playing a dangerous game. Fernando Hierro—who led Spain in the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals after Lopetegui's dismissal as coach on the eve of the tournament—spent 14 seasons at Real Madrid as a player, winning three Champions Leagues and five league titles.
However, he was bombed out of the club by Perez in 2003 because he had accrued too much power, according to Steve McManaman's memoir, El Macca: Four Years with Real Madrid. Hierro—a central defender like Ramos—was the club's captain. Iker Casillas—also a club legend and captain—left the club ignominiously in 2015.
"It's true that Ramos is playing a dangerous game with Florentino," says Trueba. "But the first challenge he had with the club he won. In 2015, it was rumoured he would be transferred to Manchester United. In the end, Real Madrid renewed his contract and put him on the players' highest pay scale. If results go badly, Ramos will have problems, but Real Madrid has such good players they might save him.
"It's very difficult to imagine Florentino selling him, but equally it was very difficult for me to imagine that Iker Casillas would leave the club the way he did. Or that Zidane because of a disagreement with the president would leave the club [five days] after winning the European Cup. These were situations I couldn't envisage. The years aren't in favour of Sergio Ramos. He's a veteran player, but he has a contract until 2021 with the club, and it would be very difficult for another club to match his salary."
The loss of Ronaldo to Juventus may yet be pivotal in the club's fortunes this season. Trueba argues that Solari doesn't have the power to demand new signings, although a series of defeats might create a clamour for the signing of a new striker, and Solari might also need more defensive back-up, as six of the squad's defenders are currently injured.
"Cristiano was important, not only because he scored many goals but also because he was a leader," says Calderon. "He showed the team how to react in bad moments. A player like him is irreplaceable. It isn't easy [to try to replace Ronaldo]—if you go to the market now, you're going to be asked for €200 million for any top-class striker. Florentino is obsessed with remodelling the Bernabeu stadium and spending €600 million on it, so you cannot do both things at the same time. It was a mistake to sell Cristiano. He could have been with us for at least two or three more years."
Calderon was Real Madrid's president from 2006 until 2009 while Perez stepped aside. During Calderon's tenure, the club won two league titles. Since Perez first became president of the club in 2000 Real have only won four La Ligas, which is unusual for Real.
Real Madrid have won more league titles in Spain than any other club. In the 1960s, for example, they won eight trophies and a five in a row in the late 1980s with Emilio Butragueno's iconic "Quinta del Buitre" team. Perez has had the misfortune that his reign coincides with the age of Messi—who has helped Barcelona win nine league titles—but something more profound is also at play.
"With Florentino he has built a team of stars," says Alfredo Relano, editor of Diario AS. "They try to play their best in the most difficult matches, but they don't have anymore the perseverance that historically they used to have in small stadiums, in matches in the Spanish league. Games which are hard because of poor pitches or an aggressive public. That virtue Real Madrid used to always have, of fighting until the end, has been lost. I don't think Real Madrid's team is weaker than previous eras, but it's some kind of vanity to think that the only thing that matters is the Champions League."
It will be fascinating to see how Solari fares for the rest of the season. Progress into the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League for Real Madrid should be a formality. League leaders Barcelona lost 4-3 to Real Betis in La Liga at the weekend, which has cut the gap to four points between the two. Real Madrid don't face any of the top 10 teams in the league table before Christmas, while Barcelona and Atletico Madrid—who are only a point behind Barcelona—might take points off each other when they meet in the first game back after the international break.
It seems that fortune—again—is in favour of Solari with the fixture list. He'll have time to build some more momentum. It's just a question of whether his luck will run out.
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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