Julen Lopetegui, Spain’s national coach, is not an easy character. Stern and focused on his work, he avoids the media as much as he can and does not deal well with losses. Before he was chosen for his current job, his highest profile job was at Porto, a tough assignment that, with some moments of promise, ended badly.
His memorable presser after Porto’s toughest defeat ever in Europe — 6-1 to Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, thus wasting a 3-1 advantage from the first leg – showed how poor his relationship with the Portuguese media was and how emotional Lopetegui becomes in the wake of a poor result.
In that sense, the change from the affable, press-friendly Vicente del Bosque has been sharp. But the newcomer brings plenty of positives to the table, and those should be felt now that the push comes to shove and the 2018 World Cup is less than three months away.
The shortcomings of Del Bosque’s last couple of years at the helm of the Spanish team were obvious. He became prisoner of the players that had led him to win a World Cup and a Euro Cup. While one can understand some attachment to such a successful generation, by 2014 it was evident that fresh blood was mandatory to face a handful of sides that were physically superior to Spain and had improved their game noticeably since 2010.
Del Bosque is deservedly an icon of Spanish football and one can’t thank him enough for his management of the squad after Luis Aragones, but he and his team botched the preparation for the 2014 World Cup miserably. Not only the team selection was ill-advised, but the choice of the cold, dry Curitiba as Spain’s headquarters when the 1st round matches were to be played in Fortaleza, Salvador and Rio – all humid and hot – made no sense to acclimatize the players to the tropical weather. And, especially, the run up of matches to prepare for the tournament was especially disappointing.
With all due respect, Finland (#68 in the FIFA rankings), Belarus (#93), Georgia (#101), Ecuador (#65), Guinea (#70) and South Africa (#76) do not sound like the right opponents to really test the World Cup holders. That gets even worse when we considered that the decisions to play against Guinea and South Africa – both matches not recognized by FIFA due to different incidents – seem now influenced by dodgy decision-making by the Spanish FA’s former president and his son.
In the year that preceded the 2014 World Cup, only a friendly with Chile (#10) and another one with Italy (#14) seemed like real warm up matches for Spain.
Compare that with Lopetegui’s approach. Spain will face Germany tomorrow (#1 in the FIFA rankings) and Argentina (#4) on Tuesday, two world champions and, together with Brazil, the biggest favourites for the summer. Before this international break, the national team has faced France (#9), Colombia (#13), Costa Rica (#26), tournament hosts Russia (#63) and Italy (#14). They will also play against Switzerland (#8) before the tournament kicks off.
The differences have not only been felt in the match calendar. The buzz coming from the players and the media surrounding the team is very different as well. Opponents are studied in depth; training sessions are more intense, with specific exercises depending on the positions; tactics are discussed on the pitch, with practical examples and collective moves. It may not sound like the second coming of Bela Guttmann, but the fact is that Del Bosque’s final year with Spain lacked plenty of items that sound like minimum conditions for a top-level coach nowadays.
The team selection, always subject to discussion, can hardly be disagreed with up to now, especially in the key positions. Lopetegui may not get all 23 right, but he’s rewarding shape over name or reputation in a quite consistent manner.
His resume as a coach is probably not the stuff of dreams, but his experience as responsible for Spain’s youth teams for four seasons gave him a taste of what it’s like to coach a national side, with scarce time to train and see his players develop.
In the next few days Spain will test, even if in a friendly format, how well they can compete with the best teams in the world. Anything can happen this summer in Russia, but Lopetegui is taking the right steps to get the most out of this national team squad, and that’s what their fans should demand from him.