Historians variously attribute the saying “Give me a lucky general ahead of a good general” to Napoleon Bonaparte or General Eisenhower. And given the way the Internet distorts things, it’ll no doubt eventually be quoted as having been initiated by Justin Bieber. But it’s a phrase that Spanish FA president Angel Villar may be happily muttering to himself over a slice of tortilla and a little caña of beer today.
I guess you could still win a pub bet in most parts of the football world if you challenged a friend with the following questions: Who is Julen Lopetegui, and can you name any highlights of his career?
Well, as of now, he’s Spain coach [appointed by Villar] and his first two matches have been a vibrant 2-0 win in Belgium, against a FIFA-ranked No. 2 team that hadn’t lost at home in three years, and a rampant 8-0 World Cup qualifier against Liechtenstein.
So far, so good. But it’s not those numbers or stats that would have made Dwight or Napoleon recruit this Lopetegui fella, put him in charge of an armored division and send him out to battle. We can revisit the idea of whether or not he’s a good general in a minute. The luck element isn’t negligible.
Let’s start with, probably, the star performer for La Roja over the last two games: David Silva. Well established as a diminutive genius of a footballer, I think it’s a little unfair to him, in terms of appreciation, that he’s been so overshadowed by two contemporaries similar in proportion, vision and skill, Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Silva may well only get the bronze medal on that podium, but he’s very much cut from the same quality of cloth.
Where Lopetegui’s good fortune arrives, as it did for Spain in 2008 and Germany in 2013, is the catalytic effect Pep Guardiola can have on certain footballers.
Spain didn’t win the World Cup in 2010 because of Guardiola, nor Germany four years later when he was coach at Bayern. But there was a causal connection in fitness, mental sharpness, tactics, work satisfaction, buzz, attitude, confidence and playing style between Guardiola’s club-level revolutions and what benefits the national side. In each case, the national team was able to call upon players from Barça and Bayern when the two teams were at their excelsior best. Never forget how the vital roles of psychology and confidence are in excellence, even to the elite player who’s been born with sumptuous technical gifts.
So, to Silva. At Man City, he’s recently not only had to cope with a drip drip of injuries, but it’s also clear to me that Manuel Pellegrini’s training methods simply required him to “tick along.” The electric intensity, the creative cauldron and the daily technical and tactical demands at City under Guardiola are like cream to a cat as far as Silva’s concerned. He’s not just fit; he’s patently glowing. Now hugely challenged, inspired and happy in his club work, Silva has brought the benefits to Guardiola’s former Barcelona teammate, Lopetegui.
Two goals and two assists against Liechtenstein. Plus there’s another little side-note of good fortune concerning Man City, too.
Last January, Nolito could have signed for Barcelona as their “fourth” forward and he’d have played, objectively, about 25 times in a season. Mostly as a sub. Instead, Barcelona’s board blocked their manager’s wish and now Nolito is enjoying life at City under Guardiola. He’ll play 90 percent of the time when fit, he’s being coached brilliantly and he’ll be given both liberty to take risks and responsibility in terms of team tactics. And he’ll be testing himself in a new environment with better teammates around him than at Celta.
Bonus for the new Spain coach? I think so. But there’s more.
Freedom from injury isn’t a permanent state for any footballer but for much of the last chapter of Vicente Del Bosque’s career, Javi Martinez and Thiago weren’t available due to a compendium of physical problems. Now both of these hungry, hard-nosed, gifted, intelligent footballers, players who yearn to emulate those senior Spain teammates that served as chief protagonists in winning the World Cup and the Euros, are back and ready.
Timing is just that crucial in life.
Then there’s the Iker Casillas issue. It isn’t quite like Raul and the grand change that Luis Aragones instituted without him from 2006 onwards. But it has been a divisive situation. There’s another slither of fortune for Lopetegui that not only did Del Bosque finally grasp the nettle and drop Spain’s captain, the process went so badly that the simple act of the new coach opting to leave Casillas with Porto and reintroduce Pepe Reina as the clear deputy to David De Gea has passed by without any real trauma, controversy or damage.
Yes, it’s been a subject of discussion, but it’s been reasonable, low-key and not a distraction to the harmony and focus of the team itself.
Let’s try for a little bit more of the “lucky general” theme. Given the importance of his role for Lopetegui when they won the European U21 Championship together for Spain in 2013, it was always a firm bet that if fit and on form, Koke was going to see more playing time and be handed more responsibility.
As for being a guaranteed starter? Well, we’ll see about that. But he has gone from peripheral and unimportant under the previous national coach to a player whose skills, attitude and winning mentality are valued by the new boss.
The lucky bit comes in that Koke’s reinstatement to Spain’s midfield is meshing with the benefits of reconnecting with his favourite target man, Diego Costa.
Costa and Koke were devastating for Atlético. The striker has never, in his life, been better supplied by a symbiotic teammate. “Goal Costa, assist Koke” became a mantra. The Brazilian wanted out of Chelsea in the summer but seems to have come to terms with the fact that his club wouldn’t sell and, for the moment at least, he appears to have buckled down under the fierce training regime of Attonio Conte, whose daily work is very reminiscent of Diego Simeone’s at Atleti when Costa was at his peak.
So, suddenly, the important opening goal against stubborn, organized Liechtenstein bears the credits: “scorer, Costa, assist Koke.”
There are other themes. Marco Asensio and Lucas Vázquez are going to be important for Lopetegui. Hugely talented, yes, but youth also needs to be given a chance to flourish and learn. Zinedine Zidane has shown, at Madrid, that they’re touchstone footballers for him and will be allowed to get match time and be given responsibility for Los Blancos. Precisely what a national coach wants to see.
Then there’s a another little splash of suerte when it comes to the next group rival. Italy remain a thorn in Spain’s side – and they’re next up. But Giorgio Chiellini’s red card in Israel means he’s banned for the Spain match. It’s not the end of the world for the Azzurri, but it’s also not at all what they’d have wished for. Just another glimmer of light for Costa, Alvaro Morata and Spain’s creative players.
So, thus far, Senor Lopetegui has been a lucky general, but is he a good general?
We’ll get more evidence in exactly a month. In Italy. Hostile territory.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.” Twitter: @BumperGraham.