Julen Lopetegui exited the Nou Camp in late October with both a sense of shock and a sinking realization that his dream of being Real Madrid’s manager was about to come to a screeching halt.
Real Madrid had just been thrashed 5-1 at the hands of their oldest and fiercest rivals, FC Barcelona, which was their worst loss in the Clásico since a 5-0 setback in November 2010. This defeat came against a shorthanded Barcelona, without Lionel Messi. It didn’t matter. Lopetegui’s Real were torn to shreds in their fifth loss in their last seven in all competitions.
Jose Mourinho exited Anfield in mid December with a similar feeling of resignation after Manchester United were handily beaten 3-1 by rivals Liverpool. The loss set them 19 points back of their opponents, who were leading the league at the time.
United had 26 points after 17 games, their worst tally since the 1990/1991 season.
Two of Europe’s biggest clubs were engulfed in turmoil. Lopetegui, who was fired on the eve of the World Cup from the Spanish job, never really took off at Madrid, inheriting a squad full of ego and veteran personalities, but notably without their best player and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo who fled for Juventus in the summer.
Mourinho, in his third season at Manchester United, had not made tangible progress from his predecessor, Louis van Gaal, and had created an air so toxic around the club that the press was fully aware of said toxicity, and blew it up in the tabloids. Evidence of dissent between the stubborn, pragmatic Mourinho and Paul Pogba, the club’s record signing and most marketable player, was present in spades.
At the time of their manager’s sackings, both Real and United, two of the world’s most prestigious clubs, seemed truly dead in the water. Fast forward to early February, and the ship has been well and truly righted thanks to two interim managers who not only have reversed fortunes but have claimed a strong stake into turning their interim label into full time.
Santiago Solari took over Real Madrid after Lopetegui was sacked on October 29 with Los Blancos closer to relegation than top of the table having amassed a measly 14 points out of a possible 30.
Solskjær took over Manchester United after Mourinho was sacked on December 18, almost 20 points adrift of the top of the table and double digit points away from the all important top four, and with it a berth in the Champions League.
The results since have been marvelous. Under Solari’s steady management, Real Madrid have jumped to second place, only six points behind Barcelona, capitalized by a strong 3-1 away win vs. rivals Atletico Madrid in El Derbi.
Solskjær’s impact has been even more impressive, albeit more immediate. In 11 games as United manager, the Red Devils are unbeaten, winning 10 of them. After being ten points adrift of the top four, United are now fourth, having leapfrogged both Chelsea and Arsenal in the process, and are up to 51 points. They aren’t quite in the title race like Real Madrid are, but their short term recovery has been phenomenal.
So how have they done it? How have two largely unproven managers taken over two of the world’s biggest clubs at the seeming height of turmoil and slowly (or quickly, in Solskjær’s case) dragged them back to relevance?
Let’s take a look.
Santiago Solari has done many things for Real Madrid. Perhaps most importantly, he’s given the younger players in the squad meaningful game time. Seasoned veterans like Gareth Bale, Marcelo, Casemiro, and Toni Kroos simply weren’t cutting it at Real. Was it fatigue from three consecutive Champions League Final appearances tied in with the World Cup, which saw several of Madrid’s key players (Marcelo, Casemiro, Kroos, Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Raphael Varane) competing all summer on the worlds biggest stage? Or was it a sum of parts, unable to be held together due to the looming absence of Cristiano?
Regardless, Solari threw reputation out the window, to an extent, and focused on cultivating some of the younger talent in the squad. The results have paid dividends. Vinicius Jr. has transformed from an exciting young talent to a near-undroppable member of Madrid’s attack, showing exciting pace and a killer connection with elder frontman Karim Benzema.
Sergio Reguilón has made the left back role his own, showing a steady defensive hand in place of the attack-minded and often-erratic Marcelo. Under Lopetegui, Reguilón made just two appearances, playing the full 90 minutes once. Under Solari, he has played the full 90 eight times, and has helped shore up a defense that kept only four clean sheets in the first 14 games of the season. Real have conceded just seven goals in the 12 matches he has played under Lopetegui.
The same goes for Marcus Llorente, who only played two matches under Lopetegui, playing the full match in neither of them. Given a chance to shine under Solari, Llorente has played 10 times, and has finished the match on six occasions.
Solari has also steadied the ship on big occasions. Other than the impressive away win in the Derbi, he also returned Real to the Nou Camp for the first time since their 5-1 drubbing, and held Barcelona to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the Copa del Rey, setting up Madrid well for the all important return leg at the Bernebeu.
As stated by Goal.com: “In October, they came to this stadium and were given a savage beating by Barcelona, with the Catalans romping to a 5-1 victory which resulted in Julen Lopetegui being sacked as Blancos boss.. since then, Madrid have made slow but steady progress and, remarkably, they now seem in a state of calm. For a club which is usually a box of fireworks, that is no mean feat.”
Real have some important fixtures in the immediate future, including the second leg of the Copa vs. Barcelona, and the Round of 16 vs. Ajax in the Champions League. However, through squad rotation, trust in the youth, and a calming hand, Solari’s Madrid appear more equipped than ever to handle the challenge.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær has made a blistering start to life at Old Trafford following Mourinho’s sacking. The numbers speak for themselves: 10 wins from 11, 23 goals in 11 games (an average of 2.09 per game, compared to 1.75 for Mourinho in 24 matches).
A reason for their phenomenal attacking success under Solskjær isn’t just because he has switched their style from pragmatism and geared it towards the attacking football that United fans have longed to see. He has also gotten the best out of his key attackers, particularly Pogba, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, and Jesse Lingard.
Firstly, Pogba has been given more freedom in the attacking third. In his last ten games with United under Mourinho, he tallied just a goal and an assist, both in the same match vs. Everton. In his first ten games under Solskjær, he has been a supernova, tallying eight goals and five assists, en route to four Man of the Match awards.
The numbers are similar down the line.
• Rashford (in Mourinho’s final 10 games): 3 goals; (in Solskjær’s first 10 games): 6 goals
• Martial (in Mourinho’s final 10 games): 3 goals; (in Solskjær’s first 10 games): 3 goals, 2 assists
• Lingard (in Mourinho’s final 10 games): 2 goals; (in Solskjær’s first 10 games): 3 goals, 2 assists
Perhaps Solskjær’s greatest feat with United has been restoring the feel-good factor and a genuine sense of unity amongst the coaching staff and players. There is no more hostility at training. And as a result, morale is high amongst the squad.
As put by United legend and current pundit Gary Neville, “He’s prioritizing, making sure he trusts his squad. Rotating gives them belief that they can get results regardless while also understanding that he can’t get the same level of performance from them three times in a week.”
United got off to an emphatic start, beating Cardiff 5-1 in Solskjær’s first match, and have had other strong moments: A big 1-0 win vs. Spurs at Wembley, they beat Arsenal in the FA Cup, and their lone blemish under Solskjær was still impressive as they scored twice in the last ten minutes to draw Burnley 2-2.
United’s upcoming stretch is truly a gauntlet, however. Before season’s end, they play PSG twice in the Champions League, and still have to play Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester City in the league, as well as Chelsea again in the FA Cup.
Both Solari and Solskjær have done tremendous jobs at improving morale and the on-field product at Real Madrid and Manchester United, respectively. How they perform down the stretch will go a long way in proving if they have what it takes to hold down such prestigious jobs on a full-time basis.