Better late than never: Lopetegui’s winding route back into Wolves’ arms | Wolverhampton Wanderers
Julen Lopetegui is late. Six years since he first started working for Wolves, he has finally turned up – officially becoming manager 295 games after he was first supposed to, and five more games since he was last supposed to. There will be two more before he sits on the bench, his role formally beginning on 14 November.
Three hundred matches have already passed and Lopetegui has done a lot since then, taking charge of 204 games of his own. He has been through a lot too: Spain, Real Madrid and Sevilla, until a 4-1 Champions League defeat against Dortmund in early October. At the end of a night of “complex, mixed emotions”, he was pushed back on to the pitch by the sporting director who had sacked him. There, he heard fans chant his name. It must have been good but it was over. Now, a month on, the pause imposed by his father’s health, he returns to coaching.
“You can’t always choose what happens to you in life,” he said. You can’t always choose when it happens to you either. This should have happened sooner; not just once, but twice. Joining Wolves, that is – although perhaps leaving Sevilla too. Yet somehow it has ended up falling into place. Timing may not be everything, but looking at Lopetegui’s career it can feel that way. Few managers can have been moved so much by moments, a willingness to go with it, to seize the day. “If it’s raining you have to dance in the rain,” he said on his last night as coach of Sevilla. This time, though, he waited. Some things remain more important.
The very day that Wolves’s owners, Fosun International, announced their purchase of the club in July 2016, Lopetegui was at Las Rozas, 25km north-west of Madrid, being presented as the Spain manager, which wasn’t the way it was supposed to be: he had been working with Wolves throughout that summer, preparing for a new season and a new era in which he would be manager, only for the one call that he could not ignore to come just in time. He coached Spain for two years but was sacked the same day the World Cup began. He had barely touched down in Russia when he was heading back again, alone.
It had nothing to do with the results – Spain were unbeaten in 20 and flying, his hand clear in their approach – and a lot to do with timing. Lopetegui had agreed to take over at Real Madrid after the World Cup. Madrid, though, had ignored the Federation’s request to wait before announcing it, and the new RFEF president Luis Rubiales – who had been in the job less than a month – reacted as is his wont: chest puffed out and full of bluster. On the eve of Spain’s opening game in Sochi, Lopetegui was in Madrid and in tears, his dream destroyed. His team, too.
“Many coaches have gone to a club after a World Cup or Euros: it could have been handled far more naturally. As well as being unbeaten, we built a clear identity. We were ready to achieve very, very big things and it hurt because they took us out at the moment when hope was highest,” Lopetegui said. There was something cruelly inevitable about his spell at the Santiago Bernabéu, the job he had given it all up for, then lasting just 138 days.
Yet there was something useful about it too, Sevilla sporting director Monchi admitting that Lopetegui’s need to achieve after the two biggest jobs a Spaniard can take had ended prematurely. He won the Europa League in his first season, broke Sevilla’s points record and secured three consecutive Champions League places for the first time in the club’s history. In two of those, they were candidates for the title. The reticence towards him – in Seville, the national team are hugely popular and Real Madrid are not – had been overcome.
His period there would end early, though. Or maybe it ended late. There had been some doubts about his continuity at the end of last season – a season that reached the halfway stage with Sevilla looking like title contenders for a second year running, but which had slipped from them draw by draw. Instead, he began another campaign at the Sánchez Pizjuán with both his central defenders departing, signings that were underwhelming and an ageing squad. And, having collected just five points from 21 and one from nine in Europe, with pressure increasing on the president, he was sacked. It has not been any better without him – in fact, it has been worse – but it had been coming. Indeed, it was already done, the coach kept in place only by the wait for replacement.
Asked after his final game whether he was still the manager, Lopetegui smiled and said that he didn’t know how this works now. “And will you be tomorrow?” he was asked. “No,” he replied. At 11.23pm, less than half an hour after the final whistle, an open secret was finally official. He had taken charge of the last game knowing he was gone, doing so with a dignity that wasn’t always reciprocated. It was October and he was out of work again. Yet if that didn’t appear to be good timing, it soon looked like it was, his release coming just two days after Wolves had sacked Bruno Lage. One door closes, another opens.
Straight back into it, then. Ready to start what was put on pause six years earlier.
Not exactly, not as it turned out. The idea was to take a little time to breathe, if only briefly. But that became extended. Lopetegui went to see his father, José Antonio, first, intending to take a few days before full talks began, before it all started up again. José Antonio’s health, though, was delicate and Lopetegui chose to stay with him. He spoke to Wolves but turned them down: it wasn’t the right moment.
A month on, it is. Wolves, convinced that Lopetegui was the ideal candidate, had not found an alternative. “Since the very beginning, Julen has been our No 1 choice, and we look forward to welcoming him and his team when they join us in the coming weeks,” Jeff Shi said on Friday. For his part, a man very aware of what the profession takes from you, Lopetegui felt ready to discuss the post again. The timing of the World Cup offered a natural watershed, an opportunity to prepare both his team and himself: his first game will be on Boxing Day.
“Being a coach takes an awful lot out of you, in terms of pressure, family, intensity. You have to be able to learn to live with it, digest it, and take it all in your stride,” Lopetegui says. “And all these things you learn: how to take all the things that happen, filter them, and use them in a positive way.”
It’s a lesson that starts young, sport built in. Now 91, José Antonio Lopetegui Aranguren was a harrijasotzailea, a champion Basque stone lifter who still lives in the home Lopetegui grew up in Asteasu, Gipuzkoa province. This is Spain’s smallest province, yet it has provided 20% of the first division’s coaches – Lopetegui, Jagoba Arrasate, Imanol Alguacil and Unai Emery – plus Mikel Arteta and Xabi Alonso. Juanma Lillo too is from there. “I couldn’t explain that, but it’s a place where sporting culture is important at all levels,” Lopetegui says, and that’s reflected in his family: his brother Joxean was also a professional pelota player.
The influences on him don’t end there for a coach who talks of constant lessons, endless evolution. At 19 he joined Real Madrid’s B team, where he would return as coach and director of the academy years later. He went to the 1994 World Cup as a player and took his first coaching steps with the national team, winning U19 and U21 European titles. And he worked with Johan Cruyff.
Barcelona was some school back then. Of the 27 players who were in Barcelona’s squad at the start of 1996-97 season, with Bobby Robson and his assistant José Mourinho taking over from Cruyff, only five have not become coaches. In April 2015 Lopetegui was one of four managers in the Champions League quarter-finals from that team, alongside Pep Guardiola, Laurent Blanc and Luis Enrique.
And then there’s England, the fascination and influence long-standing, not just lip service. Through a friend, Lopetegui found an English teacher with whom he has been taking classes for years now. Even before he was at Porto, the Premier League was on his mind, a place where he could make an impact. With Wolves, he had quite literally prepared for it.
“It’s true that I was very close to coaching Wolves a few years ago: they had a very ambitious, very nice project which we have since seen them put into place. Then the Spain job came along, but I have good memories of that era. I was collaborating with them at first without actually ending up joining formally,” he said. Now, at last, he can. They know exactly what kind of manager they are getting.
Lopetegui talks of football as a passion but also about preparation. About education too, for him as well as his charges. Watch his teams and the structure is clear, a team with a clarity of ideas, a defined methodology. “You have to explain why you do things, what it’s for,” he says. “You have to teach the players, structure the way they play through sessions so they understand the problems that can arise and what the solutions are. Players learn through repetition and spontaneous discovery but while you try to mechanise some movements it’s a fine line. If you go too far, you kill creativity. A player need the tools, but he has to be himself: he’s not a PlayStation player.”
“What you see [on the touchline] is the way I am. I’m trying to help the player and to give him information, solutions and encouragement, never to radio-control things from the bench. Games are prepared beforehand and then you have another period of quality intervention which is half-time, plus your changes. And the rest of the time … well, some chew gum, others do this or that, I live it my way. If I thought what I was doing was bad for the players, I wouldn’t do it.”
“How many times have you thought: ‘If I had only known this when I was 24, 25?’ The life of a coach is similar,” Lopetegui says. “Your experiences enrich you. You accumulate experiences that are going to help you do your job better, but there is something essential and that’s passion. If you keep the passion for your profession for 70 years and your head is right then why couldn’t you keep working? You don’t have to run when you’re a coach; what you do have to do constantly, is update your answers and be looking to improve everything. You have to be open to that idea that you can go on getting better day after day. That, to me, is what enables you to keep going in this profession. Well, for as long as they want you. When they don’t want you, then …”
Then someone else does, waiting for the right time. Better late than never.