That’s how long Julen Lopetegui lasted in the Real Madrid job, with a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of arch rivals Barcelona the final straw that broke Florentino Perez’s patience. After the controversy surrounding his appointment, which ended his tenure as the Spain national team coach a matter of days before the World Cup, Lopetegui has now lost two of the biggest jobs in world football within the space of five months.
The former goalkeeper took over from Zinedine Zidane, who stepped down in surprise fashion in May after leading Real to three consecutive Champions League titles. Despite the departure to Juventus of the club’s greatest ever goalscorer, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lopetegui still inherited a squad full of talent and experience. Over the summer, this was embellished with the arrivals of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois from Chelsea, the exciting young Brazilian attacker Vinicius Junior, right-sided defender Alvaro Odriozola from Real Sociedad, and former Madrid forward Mariano for a second spell at the club. Replacing the goalscoring feats of Ronaldo was always going to be a virtually impossible task, but the return of Mariano after a successful yet brief spell in France still looked like a downgrade. Lopetegui also failed to source adequate cover at left-back, with both Nacho and youngster Sergio Reguilon looking uncomfortable when covering for first-choice Marcelo.
Lopetegui set Madrid up in a 4-3-3 structure for the majority of his time in charge, although there were brief spells in a 4-2-3-1. Towards the end of Zidane’s reign, the Frenchman often used a 4-4-2 formation, looking to maintain Ronaldo’s presence alongside Karim Benzema in the central lane. But with the Portuguese forward gone, Lopetegui’s reverting back to a 4-3-3 – a formation he had preferred both at Porto and with the Spanish national team – initially made sense. He focused on building attacks with consistent and repeated short passes. Although this possession-dominant strategy enables control of the game, it also requires penetration or creativity in the final third; without that, deeply congested opponents can become a real chore to break down – something Real found to their cost during a four-game goalless run from late September into October.