Lopetegui's Real Madrid job on the line in Clásico at Barcelona
The Real hierarchy feel now is not the time for a change of coach, but their stance may well alter if things don't go to plan at the Camp Nou.
The last time Real Madrid lost four of their first 11 games in a season was in 2005/06, a campaign that saw Florentino Pérez end up resigning his presidency. It could be these bad memories that left Pérez with such a heavy frown in the directors' box at Mendizorroza; or perhaps it was the weight of responsibility of having made decisions this summer (such as not signing a first-class goalscorer to replace the departed Cristiano Ronaldo) that appear to have seriously hampered Los Blancos' prospects of success.
Now not the time for a change - but Clásico will be key
The return journey from Vitoria was a tense one, with Pérez and José Ángel Sánchez, Real Madrid's general manager, exchanging several phone calls to discuss Julen Lopetegui's situation. The club's hierarchy are in agreement that now is not the time for a change of coach, but there is an acceptance that they must also be prepared for the worst and, with that in mind, a point of no return has been identified: the Clásico against Barcelona on 28 October. Real have two games coming up against Levante and Viktoria Plzen which, on paper, should be straightforward and can serve to give the under-fire coach some breathing space. However, a bad defeat at the Camp Nou could well signal the end for him.
Conte's strict style now seen as potential advantage
Potential replacements are even being conisdered, with Santiago Solari, currently in charge of the club's 'B' team, Castilla, in the frame as an interim solution. Antonio Conte is the only top-level coach not already in a job. When the Italian's candidacy was looked at by Real in the summer, there were voices in the Bernabéu boardroom who felt his strict management style would clash with a dressing room full of egos. Now, however, that is looking more like a pro than a con for Real chiefs, who are not pleased with Lopetegui agreeing to travel to Vitoria on the day of the game (the club had reserved accommodation for the Friday night), or the fact that the team no longer meets up the night before home Champions League matches. Both cases are seen as the coach succumbing to player power.
Certain decisions, such as his recent eagerness to turn to Vinicius, have also left Lopetegui facing player unrest. With time running out on Saturday, the former Spain boss opted to bring on the Brazilian 18-year-old, rather than Lucas Vázquez, and it has caused some surprise in the dressing room that the coach has gone from making the youngster settle for reserve-team football to throwing him into the seniors at a time when things are not going smoothly for the side. This has been interpreted as bending to the will of the president (who needs to justify paying 45 million euros for him while still a 17-year-old).
Lopetegui was far from Pérez's first choice to replace Zidane
One thing that particularly works against Lopetegui is that he was not Pérez's first choice to take over from Zinedine Zidane, who seemed to know what would happen if Cristiano left the club (taking with him an average of 50 goals a season). Before turning to the 52-year-old, the president sounded out Mauricio Pochettino, Massimiliano Allegri ("More than saying no to Madrid, I said yes to Juventus," he revealed), Conte (who, according to the Mirror, turned Los Merengues down to safeguard his Chelsea pay-off), and the young coach Julian Nagelsmann ("I thought about it, but at 30 I felt it was too soon").
Lopetegui did accept Pérez's offer. It was a decision that cost him a World Cup, and which came despite Real having now become as much a selling club as a buying club as a result of Pérez's determination to remodel the Bernabéu (in the last five years, they have collected 424 million euros in player sales and spent 410 million on purchases). Major figures such as Pepe, Álvaro Morata, James Rodríguez, Mateo Kovacic and Cristiano all left without being properly replaced. Now, it has taken just three injuries - to Marcelo, Dani Carvajal and Isco - to expose the lack of depth in the present squad. More than anything else, however, it is a group with a lack of goals in it. This summer, Real missed out on Mauro Icardi, Robert Lewandowski and Edinson Cavani despite all three making it clear they were keen to join, and baulked at a 200-million outlay on Harry Kane. But that's in the past.
Today, the hierarchy's eyes are firmly trained on Lopetegui, the man who was willing to climb aboard when Zidane jumped ship.