Maybe Julen Lopetegui could have been saved in the second half of El Clasico.
After Marcelo scored to bring Real Madrid back into the game at 1-2, Madrid — after switching to a back three of Casemiro, Sergio Ramos, and Nacho at the half, and taking off a struggling Raphael Varane so that Lucas Vazquez could play wingback opposite of Marcelo — had many chances to equalize. They were the better team, and looked like everything Lopetegui had envisioned when he first took over. And if they had managed to equalize and continue with the same energy they came out with at the beginning of the second half, Madrid could have possibly won the game.
A win against their biggest rivals could have been what Lopetegui’s Madrid needed to finally jumpstart their season. Though they had played badly leading up to the game, but the points difference at the top of La Liga was marginal. Going into El Clasico, Real Madrid were at 14 points with four games won in nine, and Barcelona were at 18 points, having won just one more game.
The first half was everything that had been wrong with Lopetegui’s reign at Madrid. The team was tactically naive, individuals committed ridiculous errors, and nothing seemed to work. But the second half, at least the first 20 minutes, was different. Marcelo scored, and there was genuine hope.
But that hope never materialized into anything. In the 54th minute, Marcelo delivered a cross into the box that found Sergio Ramos unmarked. The captain connected on a diving header, but the ball went over Barcelona’s goal. The next minute, Luka Modric hit the inside of the right post after a deflection from a Barcelona defender put the ball in his path 10 yards from goal. After Barcelona had two opportunities of their own, Vazquez crossed in the box during a counter-attack in the 67th minute that Benzema, unmarked, managed to head over as well. Seven minutes later, Barcelona scored their third goal, and then things got even worse for Real Madrid from there.
Like most grand events, the reasoning for Lopetegui’s dismissal had to with more than a single incident. But a 5-1 loss to a team without Lionel Messi, and who were struggling in their own right, is particularly embarrassing. And while Barcelona’s seven point lead in the league isn’t too daunting in a season in which the big teams are having a difficult time, Lopetegui’s Madrid had failed to live up to what it was promised to be.
What fans were told they would get in Lopetegui’s time was a team similar to the Spanish national team — high-pressing, quick-passing team that distributed goals around, especially since the impetus to score goals would no longer be an individual burden borne by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Real Madrid started the season fulfilling that promise of an energetic and mesmerizing team, beating Getafe, 2-0; Girona, 4-1; and Leganes, 4-1. They drew to Athletic Bilbao, 1-1, but beat Roma, 4-0, right after. They were pressing high and quick, Gareth Bale and Benzema were scoring and filling in the void of Ronaldo, and Madrid had even amassed more total passes than even Barcelona.
Then it all went to hell. After the Roma game, Real Madrid beat Espanyol, 1-0, the went five games without a win. They lost four of those games, and only scored one goal in that span.
One goal in five games.
They were disjointed, afraid, and dominated by teams that should have been well beneath them. There’s no reason this Real Madrid team should fail to score a goal for that long, not with this team full of superstars and world-class players, regardless of Ronaldo’s absence. For Lopetegui, that proved to be unacceptable.
Lopetegui was announced as the next Madrid manager two days before the World Cup, while he was still the manager of Spain. Luis Rubiales, the President of the Spanish Federation — angry the federation was not consulted, and that such an announcement would be made as Spain were preparing for the World Cup — fired Lopetegui for what he considered to be disrespect from the coach and Madrid. Lopetegui was unveiled the next day for Madrid, and said: “Yesterday the saddest day of my life; today is the happiest.”
In just four and a half months, the saddest day of his life was eclipsed. In a 139-day span, he was fired as both the Spanish team and Real Madrid manager. It’s always hard to be a transitional manager, the individual who has to take over after a period of success or after a long-tenured manager, and Madrid are infamously impatient, but Lopetegui’s story is a special one.
His announcement as the Spanish manager after being sacked by Porto was a surprise, but as quick as his rise to prominence was, his fall came just as quick. In risking everything for his dream job, he ended up with nothing. Like the promise of his Real Madrid team, his time at the top seemed to come and go in a flash.