As the full time whistle blew in Cologne, an emotional Julen Lopetegui broke down in tears, barely able to walk over to his players to celebrate with them.
It was the reaction of a manger who has fought back in the game to rebuild his reputation. The chance to lift the Europa League trophy – his first in club management – was the perfect way to cap off what has been a sensational season for Sevilla, and for Lopetegui individually.
The raw emotion was heartwarming and acted as a reminder to footballing fans watching just how tough the road back to the top has been for him.
Lopetegui built up a reputation for himself in the field of management during his time at Rayo Vallecano, Real Madrid’s Castilla side and the Spanish youth teams. But it was at Porto where he was given his first major role in management, but he lasted just under two years.
During his time at Porto, there was a disconnect between himself and the fans, with many critiquing his preferred style of play. As a Spaniard, Lopetegui was keen to introduce a possession-based style of play, playing short and intricate passes to break down a defence. But this was criticised for being ineffective, instead it was argued a slightly more direct approach could have yielded better results.
Lopetegui had a vision and a clear direction for the club, but he simply wasn’t able to fully implement it. His record at Porto wasn’t exactly horrific, but it was the fact he won just two of the seven games his side played against Benfica and Sporting during his time in charge that left fans most frustrated.
Sure, he didn’t win any silverware at Porto and it was hardly a successful spell, but his attributes as a manager were clear to see. Lopetegui looked to dominate the ball, bringing the best out of each individual. With a different team, Lopetegui’s style could be very successful.
It wasn’t until July 2016 when Lopetegui landed his next job – but it was one most Spanish managers dream of: the head coach of the national team.
At first glance, the decision to name him as the Spain boss came as a shock to some – especially considering his relative lack of success at club level as a manager. But in reality, it made a great deal of sense and it was a move that benefited all parties.
After all, he guided the Spain Under-21s to victory in each of his 11 games in charge. The Spanish federation were even considering offering him the senior job before Porto secured his services.
With him in charge, Spain didn’t lose a single game and they went into the 2018 World Cup as favourites.
That’s how well Lopetegui transformed a Spain side that crashed out of the Euros two years prior at the last 16 stage. Playing a possession-based game with each player contributing to the attack, Spain were dominant in games. They won nine of their ten World Cup qualification matches, scoring 36 goals in the process and conceding just three.
Overall, Lopetegui won 14 of his 20 games in charge of the national team. He had been a huge hit among fans, playing the type of football that excited them. But his time in charge ended in the most bitter way possible.
When Real Madrid came calling, Lopetegui described it as a once in a lifetime opportunity. He accepted the job without hesitation just before the tournament and thought this would have no implications on Spain’s preparations for the World Cup. Instead, he announced he would be taking over at Madrid after the tournament.
The problem, however, was that the Spanish federation were irate.
Despite the players’ protests, they opted to immediately sack Lopetegui. And fast forward four and a half months, he was at the lowest point in his managerial career.
Two dream jobs – both ended in humiliation and disappointment.
Los Blancos made their worst start to a La Liga season since 2001/02 with Lopetegui in charge, picking up just 14 points from a possible 30. Lopetegui oversaw a run of five defeats in six games before he was eventually relieved of his duties – the last defeat being a…yep, 5-1 defeat to Barcelona.
Lopetegui’s reputation was tarnished after two embarrassing sackings in quick succession. Perhaps he was never cut out for a top job? Perhaps he overachieved as Spain boss?
Lopetegui’s doubters were only increasing by the day, but he was thrown a lifeline by Sevilla last summer. During the summer of 2019, as many as 11 players came through the doors as Monchi looked to give the boss the backing he needed.
It was a show of faith from the board, but now he needed to deliver.
As was made clear for all to see during Fulham’s disastrous 2018/19 Premier League season, endless signings can be unhealthy for a squad. They can ruin the harmony of the team, while they may even struggle to settle and have any kind of impact.
But one of Lopetegui’s best qualities as a manger is his man management. Taking each player under his wing, he made them feel at home and gave the platform they needed to shine. Take Diego Carlos for example, or Sergio Reguilon…or Lucas Ocampos – the list goes on and on.
With Lopetegui in charge, he guided Sevilla to a fourth-placed finish and a Europa League victory. With Sevilla, he has proven that he is a top manager and that Real Madrid were right to hire him – it was a case of bad timing, rather than poor management.
Lopetegui has learned from the past, but his faith and trust in his players is what makes him so special as a manger.
After the game, Lopetegui heaped praise on his squad, insisting that his side ‘never give in’. He himself has also developed this mentality. Sure, it would have been easy for him to give in after his low moments in recent years, but he is now back and showing why he was so highly regarded two short years ago.
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