Nothing like Zidane: Ruthless Lopetegui not afraid to upset Madrid's superstars

Marcelo Julen Lopetegui Real Madrid 2018-19Getty Images

Following in Zinedine Zidane’s footsteps at Real Madrid would be an incredibly difficult job, so Julen Lopetegui has chosen to walk his own path.

Several coaches turned down the chance to take the reins at the Santiago Bernabeu after the Frenchman departed in May, having won the Champions League three years running.

While Zidane was limited, tactically, he excelled at keeping a squad full of superstars and Galacticos happy and under control.

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Zidane’s history as a player, both at Madrid and with France, coupled with his previous stint on the Santiago Bernabeu bench as Carlo Ancelotti's No.2, earned him some initial leeway with the Real dressing room, which the former Ballon d'Or winner capitalised upon with calm management, making sure to keep the players with the most influence happy.

Lopetegui is taking a different route. The former Spain coach, aided by the sale of the club's biggest ego, Cristiano Ronaldo, is ruling at Madrid in his own way. Essentially, what he says, goes.

That strategy has not always worked at Madrid. Zidane’s predecessor, Rafa Benitez, employed the same firm approach in 2015 and lasted just seven months.

The Spaniard fell out with Ronaldo and others, as well as compromising his defensive style in a Clasico under heavy pressure to attack more, resulting in a 4-0 defeat.

Indeed, it is no consequence that Madrid’s more successful coaches of the last few years, Zidane and Ancelotti, have been overly diplomatic.

Zinedine Zidane Carlo Ancelotti

However, to steer a club that finished 17 points behind La Liga winners Barcelona back on course, Lopetegui has decided to utilise other methods.

While Madrid once again conquered Europe last season, the team looked uninspired in domestic competition.

Ronaldo leaving and not being properly replaced – new signing Mariano Diaz inherits the No.7 jersey but will not be expected to deliver half as many goals as the Portuguese – hurts Madrid, but it could also help Lopetegui refresh minds washed with success.

With only two league matches played, the coach is making decisions which have already forced players to sit up and take notice.

Marcelo was the first victim of the new boss' willingness to stamp his authority on the team.

After an hour of Madrid’s 4-1 win over Girona, Lopetegui hooked the 30-year-old Brazilian, with Raphael Varane coming on in his place.

Marcelo appeared surprised by his withdrawal and looked on unimpressed from the bench for the remainder of the game.

"I was surprised by the substitution but I respect the decision of the coach, I wanted to continue because I felt 100 per cent,” the left-back told reporters.

Girona had been getting past him with regularity, though, and Lopetegui wanted it to stop, having already seen the defender make an error which cost Madrid a goal in the UEFA Super Cup.

"We wanted to tighten things up down that side,” said the former Spain boss, pulling no punches. 

Marcelo Lopetegui PS

Not since Jose Mourinho has a Madrid coach acted on any defensive doubts about Marcelo. It is a message for the squad: standards will not be allowed to slip.

Lopetegui has also stood his ground on Keylor Navas too. Despite pressure from above for him to pick Madrid’s star summer signing, Thibaut Courtois, with the goalkeeper himself adding to it by saying he was ready to play, the former Spain coach has, thus far, backed the Costa Rican.

Navas rewarded his boss with a superb display against Girona and it looks like Courtois may have to wait a while longer for his first chance between the sticks – on Thursday, Navas picked up the UEFA award for best goalkeeper of the 2017-18 season.

Lopetegui picking Navas shows he will choose who he wants and informs president Florentino Perez he will not be easily manipulated.

The aforementioned Varane had a shocking game against Atletico and has started the Liga campaign on the bench, with Nacho Fernandez playing in his stead, while Dani Ceballos looks set to be given more chances to play in midfield.

Lopetegui’s treatment of Vinicius Junior is also telling. The Brazilian forward, 18, was left out of the squad to face Girona, despite pressure on the coach to give him his first-team debut, and it has since been revealed that he will play with the Castilla squad this season.

That undoubtedly influenced the surprise decision to bring Mariano Diaz back from Lyon this week, as the 25-year-old forward is a player that Lopetegui likes and was reported to have considered bringing into the Spain fold.

Of course, this is just the beginning. Madrid have won their opening two Liga games against moderate opposition. Things will get much harder for Lopetegui as soon as a result goes against him.

After the international break, there will be pressure to play Luka Modric, Varane and Courtois, meaning Lopetegui will have to make some tough decisions.

However, he’s aleady shown he's capable of doing so.