By William Hill
Last Updated: 6th December 2018
Two years. 20 games. 14 wins. 6 draws. 0 losses. 61 goals scored. 13 conceded. One ill-advised preliminary agreement with Real Madrid.
Julen Lopetegui’s record as Spain manager was almost perfect and his side were strong favourites coming into this tournament. But with his sudden sacking – only two days before Spain’s huge opener against reigning European champions Portugal – Spain suddenly look distracted and unfocused.
Lopetegui has very limited coaching experience and his only club job was a failure. So why did the Spanish players rush to his defence and why did Real Madrid appoint him? Also, what does Fernando Hierro’s appointment suggest about what modern stars want in a coach?
Spain’s national side are littered with winners and huge personalities. An increasingly popular perception that exists in Spain is that the biggest teams and best players don’t really need coaches but rather ‘man-managers’, people that know how to deal with the superstar personalities and massage the huge egos in the dressing room.
Cristiano Ronaldo will certainly attest to that. His role-playing as the coach on the side-lines of the Euro 2016 final as well as his infamous victory speech in the dressing room afterwards suggests that coaches have taken a backseat in the modern game. Portugal manager Fernando Santos is more than happy to give the floor to Ronaldo in situations that are typically his.
Portugal soared through qualifying and in contrast to Spain come into this tournament stable and settled. Their opening game represents a perfect opportunity to inflict more misery on Spain’s extraordinarily poor record in opening World Cup fixtures (played 10, drew three, lost seven).
Cristiano Ronaldo in particular will be looking to add to his meagre tally of three goals at the World Cup. Incredibly, the 33-year old captain has scored more goals for Portugal (81) than the rest of the squad combined (59).
Portugal, Ronaldo and coach Fernando Santos seemed to have found an equilibrium that has become increasingly popular with the best players and teams. That is hiring coaches that prefers to man-manage his star players rather than fiddle with every minor technical aspect.
The success of Luis Enrique at Barcelona and then Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid validates this claim. These are coaches who instead enjoyed a great relationship with players like Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo and deployed simple tactical instructions.
Their success is contrary to Rafa Benitez and Tata Martino’s hands-on, full of detail but ultimately disastrous tenures at the same clubs.