Lopetegui on a manager's life, recruitment, Premier League links

MADRID -- "I had gone 10 years practically without stopping," Julen Lopetegui said, but when the break came, it was good for him, even if leaving Wolves wasn't something he planned. "A chance to reset," he called it as he settled into a quiet corner of an empty restaurant one afternoon in Madrid.

It also wasn't going to be that long and, after eight months out of the game, it is time to return, to start from the beginning. These have been busy days: days of calls and conversations, a future to be formed, AC Milan and West Ham among those who have approached the former Sevilla, Spain and Real Madrid coach.

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"We have had opportunities to work over these last few months but for various reasons we said no, waiting for something that truly convinces us. It can come ... or not," Lopetegui said. "And if you're not convinced, it is better to say no. I prefer to wait for something that fits. It's true that our experiences in England have been good, and that our idea, our aim, was to stay in the Premier League and manage a team there, but let's see where football takes us. ... There are big clubs in Europe and we will always be open to projects that excite and satisfy us.

"This time has been useful, an opportunity to renew that internal energy, to attend to personal issues, the family ... the kind of things we sometimes miss because being a coach is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I don't understand this job in any other way and nor do my staff, but sometimes you need a reset, to step back and look at everything, think how you can evolve, how you can be better. Where do we want to go? What way direction is football heading in? What are players doing now? You have to analyze it all, and with the aim of building properly, from a preseason, which is a key question for me."

"When I said yes to Wolves, they were in a difficult position: bottom, five points off the next team, practically at the end of the first half of the season. Only Newcastle had survived from a situation like that in the Premier League era. But although it was November, [because of the World Cup] we knew there would be a kind of preseason. That's why we took it on. For us that's so important, it gives you the chance to build and to communicate who we are, what we're looking for, and how we work. And we will try to do that in the next project."

Lopetegui sat down with ESPN to talk about his next steps, what a manager does in between jobs and the player recruitment process.

What's that first day at a club like? You turn up, they don't know you. What do you say to them?

Lopetegui: Some do, some don't. It depends what circumstances you arrive in: arriving at the start of the season is not the same as arriving in a situation of difficulty, and every club has different demands. But basically the first thing you do is introduce yourself, tell them your perceptions of the team, explain your ideas, and try to involve them in that as soon as possible: you explain what you want from them daily, what demands you will make of them, and then, day by day, it flows. Respect is so important and it's never going to be just handed to you; you have to earn it, with your knowledge, your demands -- the demands you make of yourself first -- and the way you treat and respect them.

When a coach is out of work, are you focused on the places where opportunities might open up? Are you thinking, say, "Man United might change coaches, Klopp's leaving Liverpool, there could be a chance for me there?"

Lopetegui: That's the job of your agents. Personally, I watch and analyze a lot of football, from all sorts of clubs. So, no, not really, because those clubs have to choose you: you can have an interest but it's up to them, not you. Now, once you have been made aware of interest, then of course you focus more closely on them. Maybe you start watching them play, analyzing. But until then you're consuming, a lot of football and a lot of different teams.

When a club calls, what happens next?

Lopetegui: It depends on the club. A sporting director might call you because he already knows you or because he wants to know you. Some are asking about availability, others about methodology. For me, a key question is the idea the sporting director has because he's the one laying down the guidelines along which a club is run; if that fits with your view, if he has the owners and directors on his side, convinced by that approach, then perfect.

If you know each other already, if they know your work, that happens naturally. If they don't know you, maybe you go and do a presentation where you outline your ideas, your strategies, and your methods. Sometimes a sporting director can win you over when you weren't sure, or the other way round. Sometimes the moment is right, sometimes it's not.

You talk about a "project," about complicity, but sometimes a coach and a club don't see things the same way. You might have a president or a chairman who is not convinced, or you might find that the signings you want don't happen.

Lopetegui: Sure, but in the end, you have to adapt to the reality of a club and ultimately what you and the club want is the same thing: to win. There might be a certain player you want but he can't come, but that's not fundamental. What's fundamental is that they make your message their own, that the club goes in the same direction as you, that you go into battle together.

You say "we." There's an entire staff that depends on you: assistants, fitness coaches, analysts ... that's a responsibility for people's livelihoods that's not often seen. Do they say to you "Come on, Julen, accept this job?"

Lopetegui: A lot of that depends on the club: at Wolves, for example, we had a big staff. In some clubs, you take more of your people, some you can take less. Sometimes you turn up and there's already staff in place. It's a lot of people, a lot of families, but they understand that we have come this far doing it this way, that elite sport is like this. It's a responsibility; it can be hard sometimes, yes. But they understand.

What's it like being sacked? It must hurt?

Lopetegui: Yes. It's not pleasant sometimes but you generate a thick skin which is useful. Also, it depends: you leave Sevilla after the three best years in the club's history, say, and you feel the warmth and the gratitude from the fans at the moment you go, so that can be nice too. You think: OK, this is as far as we go. But that's ok. Leaving the national team was different. Every exit is different.

At Madrid, we felt that if we had been given another month, things would have looked very different. The World Cup [fall out] still wasn't quite out [of our systems], but we were still only seven points behind Barcelona. We had time. And they finished 23 points behind. We felt it was possible to fight still: players were coming back from injury, we were getting our ideas across. My feeling is pity because we were convinced we would improve.

The national team exit on the eve of the World Cup must hurt the most...

Lopetegui: That forms part of my past.

But also part of you...

Lopetegui: Yes, but I try not to look back. When I do, I see that our work was very, very good. We reached the World Cup unbeaten. We had played England, Belgium, France Italy, Germany and Argentina and not lost. But there were circumstances beyond my control, which I deeply regret because I think it was bad for everyone.

Could you have handled that differently? You had agreed to go to Real Madrid after the World Cup but it was announced on the eve of the tournament.

Lopetegui: That was nothing new in football. It had happened with [Antonio] Conte, [Louis] Van Gaal, in Spain too. You prepare your future and I was as transparent as I could be. Then it was beyond our control. It could have been managed differently [by the RFEF]; it's a pity.

When I had renewed with Spain, there was a clause they inserted in my contract that contemplated that [exact scenario], it hurt. We felt it was very unfair, but it is in the past now. We did what we had to do, we were as transparent as possible. I look forward. If I look back it is to take strength from the experience, as a way of fuelling me. You generate a thick skin. It was complicated, a tough experience, but it's in the past.

Has time proven that [Luis] Rubiales was the problem?

Lopetegui: I'm not going to get into that; it would be opportunistic and anything I say would be misinterpreted.

Is coaching the national team very different from being at a club? You talk a lot about daily work but there isn't daily work there.

Lopetegui: I tried to manage the seleccion as if it was a club: I tried to build a team. I had much less time to intervene so that meant that the invention had to be more concrete, more exact, better quality. And that sometimes means less. It's about ensuring the 'pill' you give them is the exact dose. Sometimes too much information is detrimental, so you think: 'What do they really need? How will they take this?' You make it as precise, as targeted, as you can.

The Spain job was wonderful precisely because it forced me to define clearly what I wanted to say and do. I had a long time to observe and very little to intervene. You can think 'Oh, no, I don't have time,' but that doesn't help. Instead, you think: 'OK, how do I make this time count?' I had to improve my delivery, refine everything, and make the most of every moment so that when the player turns up it's ready.

You think about moments like your sacking from the Spain job, which must be horrible, about the pressure, the interests, the exposure and there must be times when you see everything that comes with being a coach and think: "Forget that."

Lopetegui: But it's part of your job.

But it can't be pleasant sometimes.

Lopetegui: Sure, but you always try to focus on what your work is, and what you can have an impact upon. All the rest is the context. You need to know how to manage all that, how to communicate it, how to help your players face the game in the best way. All that noise, that media attention, that noise, is intrinsic to football -- and, without that, it wouldn't be the king of sports. You have to deal with it naturally.

Not least, you have to do that on behalf of your players.

Lopetegui: The emotional and psychological element of the game, that human part, is different depending on their age, character, and experience. There are 25 of them. The noise can indeed generate problems in terms of excessive pressure. It's like an FM radio, tuning it in, changing the volume: sometimes you have to turn it to the left, sometimes to the right. Sometimes up, sometimes down.

Why? Because you're seeking balance and sometimes it's already turned up in the build-up to a big game, a Madrid-Barcelona, a Betis-Sevilla, Spain. The coach has to find their correct emotional state -- sometimes you do that individually, sometimes with the whole group. You have to be alert to the details, to those moments when there's too much pressure. Sometimes people misinterpret it: they think a player lacks motivation and doesn't care, when it's actually an excess of pressure, a mental "block." That's a key question for a coach and one of the most complicated. Beyond tactics and fitness, there's emotional balance.

Do you use a psychologist?

Lopetegui: I think it is a coach's job: he is the one closest to the players. But you take guidance and use techniques from mental coaches, of course. I have worked on that and find it very useful. But it is you and your staff who are there every day, who have to understand how to take the pressure off a player in a given moment, be alert to his needs, and give him confidence.

From the outside, do we fail to see how much pressure there is?

Lopetegui: In some cases, yes. It's not easy sometimes for the kids, but they have to learn to have thicker skin at times. Being a footballer is a nice job but also a hard one. You have to be strong, you have to know that you will fall and be ready to get up again.

Some have that as standard, others less so -- and you try to help them. Isolating yourself from the outside world is impossible and counterproductive; what you can do is prepare yourself so you have the right response, regardless of what the outside world says. You still have your path, you know what you want to do and where you want to get to. In elite sport, players and coaches need a strong character.

Did you have that as a player? As a goalkeeper are you more exposed?

Lopetegui: I think it's a long path.

Was it harder for you before?

Lopetegui: Yes. I look back at my era as a player and there are lots of situations you're not ready for. But experience strengthens you, thickens your skin, it teaches you what is useful to you and what isn't, what helps, and where your responsibilities start and end. It helps you understand better what you can control. It's a learning process. Some have those strengths; others develop them. But, listen, having a thick skin doesn't mean, with apologies, that you don't give a s---; it means that I know what I can control and can't and what my response will be in moments of pressure and tension.

I always tell the players that there is no greater error than to be afraid of errors. I don't demand that a player never makes mistakes; I do demand that they are brave. You have to take decisions, you have to dare. And the error is assumed by the coach, taken on by him, so that they can flow. A player needs to participate in your ideas so that he feels no fear: behind every error is a coach who will defend him, and protect him.

Do you also learn that football is terrible sometimes? You love the game itself but all that stuff that goes with it you could so without.

Lopetegui: No, because it wouldn't be football without that other part. The power that football has brings collateral damage but you have to assimilate that and accept it. There are things you can't control, like a cow watching a train go past. You accept that. Day to day, the work you do as a coach in England compared to Spain for example, you feel less of a media presence, and less external attention. You feel a little more focused on your work, without the "entertainment" that goes with it. And then there's the respect for the figure of the coach, which is positive.

That exposure must impose limits when you are managing a group. There must be things you can't say or do that you would like to?

Lopetegui: You have to take that into account, yes. You're talking and leading. And so you have to be a leader permanently, all the time. That's inescapable. You have a group that depends on you. Sometimes it's natural, sometimes it's calculated, that's true. There are going to be days when maybe you don't feel that energy but you still have to transmit it to your players.

There was a line I read years ago, from [Antonio] Conte I think: every defeat is a funeral, a death. I understand that because we all feel that way, not least because as a coach you are responsible. But the thing is, the next day you need the energy to lead 25 lads.

And some days you don't really feel like it?

Lopetegui: Yes. But I have always felt that the difficult moments have brought the best out of me. That's important. In those moments when you're thinking, 'Pfff, bad times are coming,' your message has to be clearer. Internally and externally.

You have to be able to manage that. You go to the press conference, for example, and it's not just the press you're talking to, it will be consumed internally as well. They're watching, they see if what you say out there is coherent, the same as what you say in here. If you're honest, direct.

A journalist's question, then: do you lie to us?

Lopetegui: No. I tell you what I think most helps my team. Sometimes I could be nicer. Sometimes I could give more of a headline. But the ideal headline for me is that my team has won. And with time you learn better how to manage all the games that are played. Sometimes your message is for your team, sometimes for the environment around it. Sometimes there is a message you want to deliver.

Do you go into the press conference room thinking, "I hope someone asks this?"

Lopetegui: Yes, sometimes and if not, you find a way. You get to Rome via Galicia! A donde vas, manzanas traigo. [Where are you going, I bring apples: a Spanish phrase that means you respond to a question with something else entirely]. Sometimes you're conscious of the headline they want, and they ask the same thing seven different ways to get there. But you don't want to give it. You know that you can say 99 things that are interesting or useful but that one thing is what they will use. You have to be responsible for who is listening to you.

And not be distracted?

Lopetegui: Football is like a circus. There are lots of rings. We're all under the same big top, but there are different stages. The coaches are the ones with our heads in the lion's mouth. And if we look elsewhere, if we allow our attention to be drawn to the other rings, that lion is going to eat us. You have to focus on what's there. We're all under the same roof. I understand a journalist's job but I know that the view is different.

We both look at the same river but you're looking at it from one bank, I'm looking at it from another. Your responsibility and mine are different. If I have the lion's jaws around my neck and I look across at ...

The clowns?

Lopetegui: I'm not saying clowns! Besides, what I most like are the clowns. If I look at the trapeze artists, the lion is going to bite my head off.

Xabi Alonso has just won the league in Germany. Mikel Arteta is top in England. Andoni Iraola has just had the best season in Bournemouth's history. Imanol Alguacil was in the Champions League with Real Sociedad. Like you, they're all from the small province of Guipuzcoa. How do you explain that?

Lopetegui: I can't offer a correct response: I think it's a culmination of circumstances. Indeed, the sporting culture in the Basque Country and in Guipuzcoa in particular is very deeply rooted. I don't know if there's something in the discipline with which people live sport from a young age. It could be a coincidence but there may be some guiding element, although I'm not convinced that there is a single reason.

I have lived away from Guipuzcoa for almost my whole life, from the age of 8. Unai has too. Arteta lived away from a very young age. I think the fact of leaving helps you to have a perspective and mentality.

What is the key lesson going to England from Spain, the thing you most had to adapt to?

Lopetegui: The first thing is to be aware that you're going to a very different competition. There are different ways of playing and different ways of refereeing too, which oblige you to adapt. In England, one of the things you feel as soon as you get there is the vertiginous pace of the game. Which is, quite simply, a product of the continuity of the game and that is a product of the refereeing. If the same action is a yellow card in Spain and not even a foul in England, you have to know that and change accordingly. You need to understand the idiosyncrasies of where you are.

Things like simulation, which are frowned upon in England, more than in Spain, Italy. I feel that referees in England have a direct responsibility for the rhythm and pace of the play. Very direct. I think they feel that [responsibility to the play]. Personally, I like that. Your basic concepts remain, the essence of how you see the game, but you are evolving all the time and that's one of the elements.

A coach's job is a lot about communication. Is that harder in English?

Lopetegui: For me it was wonderful. I was clear that I had to communicate with them in English. First, out of respect for the country and the league. Second, because players perceive that effort, the respect, and you communicate much more to them that way. In football, you can communicate everything you need [even in English]. Sometimes even better in fact because you're more vehement. And you get better daily.

That was one of the challenges I was excited about: to see if I could do my work in English. The way you work isn't so different but of course your capacity shifts. And with time you develop a depth of language you didn't have at first. And then there's French, Portuguese, Spanish: it's important to be able to talk to a player individually in his own language.

Is your job more charismatic or technical?

Lopetegui: They're legs from the same bench. A player has to see direction, knowledge, and an idea. He has to be convinced, above all. You have to find a way of conveying your ideas that wins him over. I like that players that take you to the limit, and ask why: why are we doing this? What's the 'for'? It's good, they're showing an interest, they're not just reactive, not just following. They want to understand. That's wonderful for a coach because it forces you to examine your ideas, to explain them, to challenge yourself.

Does a player realize quick if the coach just hasn't got it?

Lopetegui: Yes.

And then you're done for?

Lopetegui: A player is permanently analyzing and constantly judging his coach. I did it as a player. Unconsciously, maybe, but you do. They're watching you: how you react in moments of difficulty, how you you deal with conflict in the group, what a moment of euphoria does to you, or a bad moment in defeat, how you react in a relationship with the club, if there's a problem. A coach's work is continually in the eye of the storm.