REAL MADRID SOUGHT TO SALVAGE THEIR SEASON BY FIRING JULEN LOPETEGUI AND THEY HOPE THE IN-HOUSE APPOINTMENT OF SANTIAGO SOLARI WORKS. EUAN MCTEAR LOOKS AT WHAT THE ARGENTINE OFFERS.
It certainly worked out the last time Real Madrid promoted the Coach of Castilla, their B team, to the first-team head coaching role. Zinedine Zidane managed to win nine trophies in just two and a half years in charge of Los Blancos, including three Champions League titles, so why couldn’t it happen again with Santiago Solari?
The Argentine was the chosen one to take over once the decision was finally made to put Julen Lopetegui out of his misery and to sack the Basque after posting a record of seven wins, three draws and six defeats and after a 5-1 humiliation in October’s Clasico. At first, Solari was a temporary appointment. Real Madrid had a fortnight to evaluate him before having to decide on whether or not to offer a permanent contract, but a record of four wins from his first four games, with 15 goals scored and just two conceded, convinced them that he could do the job. He was duly handed a contract until 2021.
For many, the length of the deal was a shock. For some, it was a headscratcher that Solari had even been appointed at all. His time at Castilla had been underwhelming and the club even considered replacing him as the B team’s boss during the summer months, following two seasons in which they’d finished
11th and then eighth in their group in the Segunda B, the 80-team third tier of Spanish football, when the objective had been promotion. The start to the 2018-19 campaign was much better, but it wasn’t as if Solari had been pulling up trees since day one.
For Solari, Castilla had been his first taste of coaching in the Spanish footballing pyramid, after having previously earned his stripes at the lower levels of the
Real Madrid academy. His route into management and then to the Real Madrid first-team job was almost identical to his former teammate Zidane’s, but there are a
couple of important differences to keep in mind.
One is that Solari’s results at Castilla weren’t as impressive as the Frenchman’s, as Zidane boasted a winning percentage of 46 percent, compared to the Argentine’s 37 percent. The other key difference is that Zidane possessed a certain unmatchable aura, the kind that could bend the club’s superstars to his will. Solari, who played for the capital city club between 2000 and 2005, may have been next to Zidane in many of the title-winning photos plastered on the walls of the club museum, but he was never front and centre. He was never a Galactico.
From day one, Solari has been keen to play down comparisons with Zidane. “Zidane you cannot compare with anyone,” he told reporters at one press conference. “He was a legend as a player and was someone who I had the good fortune to battle and sweat alongside.
“As a Coach, he might be the most successful in Real Madrid's history,” Solari continued. “I look at him too as a great human being. So we should not compare him with anyone. Leave him alone in his greatness.”
However, it’s inevitable that Solari will be measured against the Coach who so recently led Los Blancos to an unprecedented three consecutive Champions League titles and who was promoted into the job in similar fashion. Countless articles have appeared in the local newspapers linking Solari’s decisions to those made by his predecessor’s predecessor.
So what about Solari’s decisions? What has he changed at the club since taking over from Lopetegui? The main difference is that the 42-year-old has been playing his squad members in their natural positions as much as possible. Lopetegui was reluctant to use raw talents like backup right-back Alvaro Odriozola and backup left-back Sergio Reguilon whenever Dani Carvajal and Marcelo were injured or suspended, but Solari trusted the 22-yearold and 21-year-old enough to play them in his first matches. Similarly, he brought Marcos Llorente back from the footballing wilderness to replace Casemiro when the Brazilian was out injured and the young defensive midfielder did an excellent job of filling in for the starter. Part of this has to do with his belief in young players, which also explains why the likes of Vinicius Junior, Fede Valverde and Javi Sanchez have also seen their playing time dramatically increase.
Tactically, there has been a shift back to the kind of vertical football that worked so well for Real Madrid over the previous three campaigns, with wide players like Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius earning more playing time at the expense of silky passers like
Isco. Lopetegui tried to install a possessionbased style at the club, but the long series of side-to-side passes often failed to pose issues for opposition defences. Across Solari’s first month in charge, average possession in League matches was down to 57 percent, compared to the 66 percent under Lopetegui, while passes per game dropped from 411 to 162. At the same time, goals per game increased from 1.4 to 2.0. It remains to be seen whether or not this can be sustainable. The get-the-ball-inthe-box-as-quickly-as-possible tactics of old worked so well because Real Madrid had one of the best penalty area predators in the game in Cristiano Ronaldo. Getting the ball into the feet of Karim Benzema or Mariano Diaz isn’t quite the same. Against certain teams, this plan simply won’t work. This was the case in the 3-0 loss away at Eibar in late November, Solari’s first setback on the job after starting off with four victories in a row. Eibar batted away everything that was thrown into their penalty area, while their high line also frustrated the visitors from the capital’s long-ball game, with Benzema caught offside seven times, a record for the striker. The good news for the Argentine tactician is that, like every Real Madrid Coach, he’ll be judged on what happens in Europe, where the opposition are more ambitious and less likely to play in the style of teams like Eibar. Los Blancos will come up against teams they can trouble through direct football and teams they can counter attack against, as they have been doing in the Champions League over the past three years.
They still harbour hopes of challenging for the league title and the fact that Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have been dropping points like Hansel and Gretel do breadcrumbs means that there is still a chance they could win the domestic championship. The focus, though, will be on Europe and this may be the most likely opportunity for collecting major silverware in Solari’s debut season.
With the Champions League as competitive as ever, the reality is that there is a strong chance that Real Madrid’s tight grip on the European Cup will loosen in 2018-19. What that would mean for Solari is unclear. He has a contract until 2021, but few coaches at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu are ever allowed to leave on their own terms. Zidane was an exception in that regard. Failure to lead Real Madrid to victory at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, the home of their neighbours Atletico Madrid, in June’s final could be costly for the rookie tactician, especially with several coaches who boast impressive CVs set to become available in the summer. Solari is not Zidane, even more so if he fails to achieve the immediate success of the French icon.
‘For some, it was a headscratcher that Solari had even been appointed at all.’‘Julen Lopetegui'S TERM ONLY LASTED 138days’ ABOVE:Julen Lopetegui was sacked after just 138 days in charge.LEFT:Santiago Solari was brought in as a temporary appointment and then given a permanent deal to 2021.
ABOVE:Real Madrid topped their Champions League group with a round to spare and now target a fourth consecutive title.BOTTOM:The 18-year-old superstar Vinicius Junior has played much more under Solari after earning just 12 minutes under Lopetegui.