Is Julen Lopetegui the Spanish David Moyes?
Jose Mourinho supporters may view Manchester United’s fight-back results on either side of the international break as proof positive the Red Devils are turning the corner under the Portuguese manager. NBCSN studio analyst Kyle Martino remarked that Jose was for once fortunate Ed Woodward was a poor director of football. The American suggested a qualified executive would “deconstruct” the two games to ask his coach [if the rallies were indicative of Mourinho’s ability] why he can't coax that second-half dominance from his side for a full 90? I bring up the point to illustrate that, four-campaigns-and-a-third later, United still struggle to recover from David Moyes' 34 Premier League games in charge.
To be fair to the Scot, the club isn’t recovering from any reckless, destructive, self-absorbed moves on his part. He wasn’t Rafa Benitez blowing up the treble-winning Inter squad the former Liverpool boss inherited from Mourinho. Moyes simply couldn’t keep a fading squad performing well above their abilities the way Fergie had. Or deal with media pressure. Or hold his own against the new board.
For his part, Ed Woodward wasn’t David Gill. He couldn’t plug the holes for his manager with the same efficacy Gill quietly provided.
The plain truth is United still struggle to redefine themselves in the vast emptiness left by Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill’s departures. Moyes and Woodward share the same primary flaw. Neither is the man his predecessor was.
In Madrid, the same holds true for Julen Lopetegui. He is no Zinedine Zidane. Worse, although two integral figures in Los Blancos' success left in the same summer, Lopetegui was the lone arrival. Even if they couldn’t forge a partnership, Moyes and Woodward at least had one another when they first stepped into the void. The erstwhile Spain manager had to pick up the pieces alone following Zizou’s resignation and Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer to Juventus.
Call me an eternal optimist and a fool; I saw positives in both men when they were appointed. Moyes spent eleven years with Everton relying on an eye for talent that could be bought for value. He forged a strong relationship with Toffees chairman Bill Kenwright. His hard stare became notorious. He brooked no opposition from the media nor in the clubhouse. If Everton was the Premier League’s Aberdeen, Moyes was a Sir Alex in waiting. When he replaced Fergie’s entire staff with his own people, I thought it confirmed my judgment. Then he began apologising for stepping on people’s toes.
Lopetegui never apologised to anyone. He just asked for time. When the boss who won the Champions League three times in two-and-a-half years departs, followed soon after by the club and UCL’s all-time scorer, patience is a fair request. It was always going to fall on deaf ears, however. If any club’s fanbase feels more entitled than Old Trafford denizens, it’s the folk who frequent the Santiago Bernabeu.
Both men inherited squads in transition, filled with too many veterans past their prime and wet behind the ears youngsters alike. Moyes at least enjoyed some support in the market although it took United fans until this September to come around on Marouane Fellaini. Lopetegui’s tenure began without a single recruit who could make an immediate impact in the squad.
The veteran exodus begun under Zidane continued when both Ronaldo and Fabio Coentrao said their goodbyes. Thibaut Courtois arrived from Chelsea, unneeded with Keylor Navas already in place. Mariano Diaz returned from Lyon but was barely used until starting against Levante and hitting the woodwork late. Mateo Kovacic was loaned to Chelsea. Reconstruction remains in the early stage. Asking Lopetegui to hold the fort with a skeleton crew is as unfair as expecting Moyes to defend a Premier League title with a battered, ageing squad buttressed by Danny Welbeck, Adnan Januzaj and Federico Macheda.
Given time, the former goalkeeper can probably reshape the Merengues. After nearly a decade as Ronaldo’s entourage, Real Madrid need a culture change. They must diversify their attack after conditioning themselves to always find their superstar. When you’ve stared into the sun for any length of time, it’s difficult to adjust to normal lighting.
While Lopetegui’s trophyless as a senior manager, his last two appointments tell a different tale than recent results. He won 53 of 78 matches [68%] at Porto, ceding 0.69 goals per match and outscoring opponents by 105 in all. He went undefeated in 20 matches for Spain, winning 14. Under him, La Roja pummelled the opposition 61:13 on aggregate.
AS reports club president Florentino Perez met with the embattled coach soon after Saturday's defeat. They spoke alone for 15 minutes. Lopetegui emerged saying he would manage the Champions League match against Viktoria Plzen tomorrow evening. No one said anything about El Clasico looming next Sunday.
Before he was sacked in Russia, Real Madrid players in the national squad sang their new boss' praises. Their endorsement was the most encouraging aspect of his appointment. It’s a mystery why they’re not playing for him now but what else can you call four games and 72 minutes without a goal? La Liga’s entirety didn’t experience an evolutionary leap overnight. Unfortunately, player relations work both ways. If the 52-year-old was hired on the word of Sergio Ramos, Isco, Dani Carvajal, Nacho, Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio, he can be sacked on their recommendation, as well. Whether or not they take responsibility for their poor performance, acts speak louder than words. For Julen Lopetegui, there may be just the one act remaining.