Julen Lopetegui is no stranger to turmoil. So it is telling that, having surveyed the landscape at Wolves, he is candid as to the size of his Monlineux rebuild. “You have to face reality,” he says. “The situation at Wolves is not good, it’s bad.”
That reality is this: a side facing the very real prospect of relegation from the Premier League for the first time since they were promoted back to the top flight in 2018.
Lopetegui, though, insists all hope is not lost and that the enforced break caused by the World Cup is the ideal time to take on a project this daunting. His coaching team will begin working with his players on Saturday and he is offering the club’s players a clean slate.
“There is still a lot of time left, and this break for the World Cup will be good for us because we will be able to work with part of the team,” he adds in his first newspaper interview since taking on the job. “It will be good for us to get to know each other a bit better and to adapt to new players and them to a new manager who will develop a different footballing idea.”
Lopetegui is not easily fazed. That he today sits in the Black Country, and not the Bernabeu, shows how fleeting success can be in football.
It was the summer of 2018 – just as Wolves were plotting their first season back in the top flight – that Lopetegui was caught in the eye of one of Spanish football’s biggest storms.
Then Spain manager, he was putting the finishing touches to their World Cup campaign – only to be unceremoniously sacked days before their first game after it emerged he had agreed to take the Real Madrid job after the tournament.
Lopetegui lasted just 14 games at his new club.
Today, he insists Spain is “pre history” to him, but you cannot escape the fact that in 2018, Wolves and Lopetegui were part of football’s upwardly mobile set – and now, in 2022, they are united in a battle against Premier League relegation.
“We have to ask ourselves why we are where we are,” Lopetegui, who was sacked as Seville manager in October, having rebuilt in Andalucia before a dip in form cost him his job.
“What we could have done in other leagues can sometimes be harder to develop in England. We have to make them see that what they have done is no longer worthwhile but focus on the present. They can give more. If they have performed well in other leagues, they can also do it in the Premier League.
“I would prefer us to be in another position but we have to accept it. We can’t think about anything other than competing every game to achieve the objective of remaining in the elite.”
'We must dedicate ourselves with body and soul'
His move to Wolves completes a six-year courtship that was briefly derailed by Lopetegui taking the Spanish national job. And there is one thing that has been on his radar since the prospect of a Premier League job first emerged: the barnstorming British fans.
“The Premier League is a goal for any professional.” he continues. “It can be considered the most important league, with the most economic capacity and infrastructure. There are good players in every league, but the potential in England is enormous.
“The reorganisation of the clubs has been good at all levels, and the fact that all these coaches are here speaks for the context in which the Premier League operates. And, the best thing is that it has never lost that British essence that is generated, the atmosphere in all the stadiums.”
Spain, now managed by Luis Enrique, put the rest of the World Cup on notice with their brilliant 7-0 win over Costa Rica. But for Lopetegui the re-emergence of the side, led by young stars Pedri and Gavi, comes as no surprise.
“Spain is a very exciting team, they know what they are playing for and they are not going to change anything from the way they have played since Luis Enrique arrived,” he adds. “It’s a team with personality, and I like them because it’s true to its style. They are going to be serious contenders.”
Not that Lopetegui will be taking any more than a passing interest, of course. He has work to do.
“I’ll watch it, no doubt, like any football lover,” he says. “But not with the same intensity as I would if I wasn't involved in a project like Wolves, with the responsibility I feel now. The trust of the club and the fans forces us to dedicate ourselves body and soul.”