Editor-in-chief Dan Hunt reports on the appointment of Julen Lopetegui as the new Wolves manager
When Julen Lopetegui came to Wolves in November last year, the club were in dire straits. His predecessor Bruno Lage had failed to turn around the club’s poor run of form that had originally dipped towards the end of the previous season, leaving them rooted to the bottom of the table with just 10 points after 15 games.
The appointment was seen as a big coup for Wolves, with Lopetegui’s successful spell at Sevilla cementing him as one of Europe’s most respected managers, with an attractive style of football that garnered Champions League qualification three years on the trot.
Since his arrival, the Spaniard has slowly galvanised the team, dragging them up the table with 5 wins and 2 draws in his first 11 Premier League games. This is despite a tricky run of fixtures, with wins against Liverpool and Spurs, holding high-flying Fulham to a draw and coming from behind to beat Southampton with 10 men. The implementation of his trademark high pressing style has been gradual and not always easy, but the team at Molineux now is unrecognisable from the one that looked sluggish and directionless at the start of the campaign.
Lopetegui’s managerial career has been fraught with variable results, controversy and challenges. During his playing career he played as a goalkeeper in Spain’s first and second tiers, earning spells at Real Madrid and Barcelona, but these were mainly spent on the bench. On the international stage, his career amounted to just a single cap for Spain in 1994.
He nonetheless returned to the international fold as a coach, working through the ranks and managing the Spain U19s, U20s, and U21s between 2010 and 2014, winning the U19 and U21 European Championships in 2012 and 2013 respectively. This led to a trophyless 18-month spell at Porto, before returning to manage Spain’s senior team in the summer of 2016.
Under his management, Spain comfortably qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but he was sacked just days before the opening game after it was announced that he had agreed to take charge of Real Madrid following the tournament. Lopetegui famously described the ordeal as ‘the saddest day of his life’ in his first press conference at the Bernabéu.
With the hangover of this controversy still weighing him down, Lopetegui had a poor start to his tenure at Los Blancos, with his first game being a 4-2 defeat to local rivals Atletico in the Madrid derby. He was sacked after just 14 games in charge – the final nail in the coffin being a 5-1 defeat to Barcelona. Despite his poor record at Real, he joined the club at a difficult moment, with Cristiano Ronaldo having left in the summer and the club failing to sign a viable replacement. His successor, Santiago Solari, was also sacked before the end of the season.
Following several months spent licking his wounds, Lopetegui’s redemption took place when he returned to La Liga with Sevilla in June 2019, where he won the Europa League in 2020. Despite three successive fourth-placed finishes, he was sacked amid a poor start to the season in October, freeing him up to take the Wolves job the following month.
Since his appointment, Wolves have looked a different beast on and off the pitch. The upturn of results and rise to 4 points clear from the relegation zone has led to a greater feeling of stability around the club. His calm and classy press demeanour has seen him praise other managers and even buy pizza for reporters. It’s been well documented that Wolves have admired Lopetegui for some time, having originally tried to tempt him to Molineux in 2016 when they were still in the Championship.
So far, he’s done what’s been required of him. He’s pulled them away from the relegation zone and reinvigorated a hugely talented squad that was lacking in confidence and conviction. Save for an unexpected decline in fortunes in the final stretch of the season, Wolves look poised to stay in the league and consolidate themselves further next season.
Wolves’ appointment of Lopetegui was undoubtedly somewhat risky: an experienced but inconsistent manager yet to be tested in the Premier League, but nonetheless, it worked. Who can say what Wolves can achieve next season, with a full pre-season and more opportunity to mould the team in his image behind him. But what is certain is the fact that Wolves’ Lopetegui is miles away from the Lopetegui who joined Real Madrid under such a dark cloud, and fans can realistically start dreaming of success in years to come.
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