In Porto, they remember Julen Lopetegui (U-len Lo-pe-te-gi) with surprise, the man who liked to walk all the way from the club’s training ground in the Olive Mountains to his mansion in the port of Matosinhos, and a man with an awkward sense of humour.
In his first locker-room interaction, he gave his players a strange linguistic drill. “Whoever pronounces my name right are in for the first game. Ok two minutes,” he screamed. Only five got it right, and Lopetegui couldn’t resist chuckling, and he playfully reasoned, “Now I know why I didn’t get into the team-sheet more often than I should have, because the managers couldn’t get around my surname.”
His humour smacked of a self-deprecating undertone. For Lopetegui, a ‘super’ goalkeeper by his own assessment, had spent considerable time warming the benches of both Real Madrid and Barcelona, besides the national team — five years combined at both clubs earned him a spectacular haul of six games. But he’s not a pessimist. “I always see the glass half full. Sitting on the bench gave a bigger opportunity to observe how some of the greatest minds in the game worked. With Real, I watched and learned from Di Stefano. In Barcelona, it was Cruyff. Of course, there was Javier (Clemente, Spain’s coach) too. What more could I have asked for?”
The double junior World Cup winning coach had arrived in Porto to teach them tiki-taka, or according to Porto’s owner, “to make Porto a Barcelona”. But 16 months into his tenure, it was terminated, as the serial league winners began to slip in the title race. In his departure note, he wrote: “Tiki-taka is a culture, which takes several years of patient and concerted effort to master.”
Soon after he landed in his hometown, in the Basque township of Asteasu, he got an offer from newly promoted Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers to teach them ‘tiki-taka’. He told them, “I don’t teach tiki-taka. But I’ll teach your side how to win.” He was keen to join them, but before even the paperwork began, he was appointed Vicente del Bosque’s successor, after Spain’s pre-quarterfinal exit at Euro 2016. He sighed, “This time at least, no one talked of tiki-taka.” But he knew his imminent task: “Repair the body and keep the soul of Spain intact.”
Less than a year into his job, he travelled to New York to meet former Barcelona striker and friend David Villa, who had last featured for Spain at the 2014 World Cup, mostly coming off the bench. Impressed with his fitness and drive, he recalled the then 35-year-old striker. Lopetegui already had Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa, but neither was as reliable as Villa — Morata was profligate and Costa notoriously moody.
Thus, he reinstated the old-fashioned strikers in Spanish football, so long fixated with false nines who enhanced fluidity of movement and conjectured additional angles to keep the ball moving, and cerebral midfielders, and which spectacularly worked for them too. Del Bosque did try to stitch Costa into the frame, but his rumbustious style contrasted with the short-passing outlay, and their relationship soured. But Lopetegui embraced a more direct game, the build-ups were less elaborate, the ball circulation not so complex as in the tiki-taka heyday, and the strikers and conventional wingers more involved. But he did not entirely rip the Spanish template, or culture as he likes to call it, apart. “There’s not going to be a revolution, it’ll be evolution,” he always emphasised.
Short passing, patient build-up, high defensive line, the interchanging of positions, and possession play are still their raison d’etre, but it’s not their predisposition. They meticulously modulate their tempo and tenor, mix up their passing, use the width of the flanks more liberally. There is more pace on the wings, rare long balls aren’t a crime. The full-backs, who previously pressed higher up the pitch and roamed as improvised wingers, now belt split-second crosses to the centre forward and track back, a brand of game that suits Costa, who reciprocated the manager’s trust with a hitherto elusive consistency in the qualifiers. Even counter-attacking, a profanity in the tiki-taka doctrine, is no longer sacrilegious.
Thus Lopetegui’s Spain, unlike his predecessors’, have a variety of methods to rattle their opponents, stripping them of the morbid predictability of the late tiki-taka age, tactical inflexibility that prompted premature jettisoning from the World Cup and Euros. “We had to change after the setbacks. And change as Johan always used to insist, is not radical overhauling, but subtle, more efficient systemic changes,” Lopetegui told Marca.
But the shift was not only a necessity thrust by the changing times, but personnel too. Teams had learned to neutralise tiki-taka, but even more, the crescendo-hitting conductors of this subliminal orchestra had either departed or their games had slinked into autumnal barrenness. Xavi, the heartbeat of tiki-taka, had departed, almost dragging his younger colleague Andres Iniesta too. Cesc Fabregas, the wiliest of false nines, seems a spent force. Xabi Alonso has long vanished.
The replacements are not replicas — they can’t be — but with immense potential of their own. For example, Koke, who occupies Xavi’s role is less of a genius but a tidy passer with fabulous positional sense. Thiago Alacantra has pace and anticipation, while David Silva and Isco, generally employed either side of Costa, have sharp tactical and play-making acumen. There’s an abundance of midfield talent too — Aspas, Asensio, Niguez. It’s where Lopetegui’s experience kicks in — as most of them have worked with him in the youth set-ups.
Suffice it to say that he has, in two years, remoulded Spain, repaired its body and kept the soul largely intact. To those criticisms that he has comprised tiki-taka in its purest form, he retorts: “In tactics, there are no absolute rights and there aren’t many absolute wrongs: there is certainly no magic formula. Tactical theorists aren’t like alchemists searching for the quintessence that will explain everything. There is evolution and development in tactical thinking, but everything is contingent on other factors.”
His departing predecessor Del Bosque scrawled a philosophic note of advice to Lopetegui: “Don’t love all players equally. You’ll be blinded by love.” The latter knew the inference — Lopetegui is considered a soft man, who conveys even the news of benching players apologetically. “I feel guilty, because the decision might have been marginal, maybe there’s a better player against a specific opponent. I feel it’s an injustice, maybe because I’ve spent half my career on the bench,” he said.
Hence, most of his squad announcements begin with an apology to the players who missed the cut — some would say it’s a clever way to not antagonise the players, who he might need in the future.
Nonetheless, Lopetegui has made quite a few tough — sometimes even controversial —decisions. He dropped an underwhelming Fabregas, the man anointed to lead Spain in the future. Pedro, Iker Casillas, Sergi Roberto, Juan Mata, Morata and Vitolo all met a similar fate at his hands. Lopetegui admits it’s the most difficult part of his life. “It’s when I channelise the inner stone lifter in me,” he often says.
Lopetegui frequently weaves the stone lifter analogy in conversations. Stone lifting, heaving rocks against the clock, is a popular sport in the Basque countryside and his father Jose is considered a legend in the rustic but manliest of all sports, as in his prime he lifted a 100-kilogram stone 22 times within a minute. “In Russia, I can prove my family that I’m a heavyweight too,” he said, laughing before leaving for the World Cup. A heavyweight not showing the burden of managing Spain after its most sparking of golden eras, himself setting the foundation stone of another golden era.