In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Wolves head coach Julen Lopetegui talks Led Zeppelin, Johan Cruyff, and buying celebratory meals for his team. Watch Fulham vs Wolves live on Sky Sports Premier League this Friday from 7pm; kick-off 8pm
By Adam Bate, Comment and Analysis @ghostgoal
It was the meeting with Wolves vice-president Robert Plant that made Julen Lopetegui’s arrival at Molineux extra special. The Led Zeppelin frontman had a gift for the new head coach. “A fantastic memento with different discs,” Lopetegui tells Sky Sports.
“I grew up as a kid with this music, my brother and me. For my brother it was an incredible moment. He is five years older than me. At this time, when I was young, I always heard his music at home and it was always Led Zeppelin. We know all their music.”
Lopetegui even had a chance to reminisce about a show of theirs he had watched in the United States. “In New York at Madison Square Garden.” The fan recalled the show. The singer remembered it because of what happened after the show. Say no more.
It is a light-hearted moment from a coach who is otherwise focused on the task of keeping Wolves in the Premier League. The club were bottom of the table at Christmas, the lowest scorers in English football. Now they are out of the relegation zone altogether.
Speaking inside his office at the club’s training ground, he is careful to scrub the tactical formation off the white board. Later, upon seeing Fulham boss Marco Silva’s press conference on Sky Sports News on the television in reception, he makes a note to record it for any insight. Lopetegui is, as new signing Craig Dawson put it in an interview of his own with Sky Sports this week, big on detail.
Football is his passion and the explanation for his decision to go into coaching is revealing. “I think when you are a player, the only way to continue feeling the same adrenaline is by becoming a coach. But the main reason is that I am interested in players,” he explains.
“And the work of the coach never stops. Tomorrow, for sure, you will learn something new about your work. This is one of the exciting things about this job because there is new information to learn every day. That is what makes it so interesting.”
That interest was first ignited during his playing career. His influences include some of the biggest names in Spanish football, as one might expect of a man who played for Real Madrid and Barcelona, as well as being part of Spain’s squad at a World Cup.
“Maybe I was lucky because I had very good coaches. Javier Clemente, Radomir Antic, John Benjamin Toshack. Coaches with personality. Sometimes you have more feeling with one coach than another but in the end you are going to be influenced by all of them.”
Influenced by all of them but changed by one of them.
It was his first coach at Barcelona who opened his mind. A man by the name of Johan Cruyff. “Johan was different,” Lopetegui explains. “He started making me think about why I was doing things as a goalkeeper and the solutions we were trying to find.
“He started me thinking about the answers in the play. Until that moment, I did not think, I just played. The coach told me what I had to do and I did it but without real conviction. He was very different for me. He had his own way of managing people.”
Julen Lopetegui’s career since 2012
2012-2014 Spain U21
2018 Real Madrid
You can count on one glove the number of goalkeepers who have become Premier League managers but Lopetegui is one of those who wanted more. “It would have been comfortable to stay as a goalkeeper coach. That would have been a comfortable life.”
There was nothing comfortable about the situation that he inherited at Wolves but the mood is no longer so bleak. Belief that Lopetegui could turn it around was soon boosted by a stoppage-time win over Everton in his first Premier League game in charge.
Wolves’ opponents on Friday Night Football, Fulham, are the only team outside the top three to have won more matches since he took over. The recent 3-0 win over Liverpool was surely their most emphatic against one of the big boys in the Premier League era.
How has he changed it?
“Your main work as a coach is to develop the skills of the players. We want to be a strong team in all the phases. I say to the players all the time that you need to aim for perfection. It does not exist but it is a very good aim, knowing that we can improve.
“Sometimes we will win, sometimes we will lose, but you have to come in every day with a big energy to improve. I try to give the team belief, to show them that they can compete with any team in the Premier League, while knowing that any team can beat you.”
Defeat to Bournemouth last weekend, when victory would have left them now six points clear of the relegation zone, was a reminder that the job is far from done. Lopetegui is trying to instil belief among a group of players whose confidence has been badly shaken.
The last Premier League goal by a Wolves striker came almost a year ago now. Even January signings Matheus Cunha and Pablo Sarabia, brought in from Atletico Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain respectively, have yet to score this season.
It is a concern among supporters.
Lopetegui stresses that it is everyone’s responsibility to score but knows this must change. “We have to improve the situation. It is true that our strikers have not scored but they work hard for the team. They say that the luck finds you when you are working hard.”
Improving the defence has helped. Lopetegui’s Sevilla conceded the fewest goals of any team in La Liga last season and Wolves already look more organised. They may have scored only nine goals in eight games since he arrived but they have conceded even fewer.
“Football is about the defensive phase and the attacking phase if you want to beat the opponent. Without both, it is impossible. That is why the clean sheet is important. To have a clean sheet allows you to beat the opponent in just one moment.”
The signing of Dawson has helped?
“Correct,” agrees Lopetegui.
“He is here with a good attitude, an experienced player who, for sure, is helping us. We had to put this experience into the dressing room because you have to be balanced in the bad moments and have good characters. We are very happy with him.”
Dawson was part of the clean sheet that Wolves kept against Liverpool on his debut, an achievement that was rewarded with a meal in Birmingham – paid for by the head coach. It will become a tradition if Wolves manage more shut-outs between now and May.
“It is a good investment,” says Lopetegui.
“I would like to pay more!”
There seems to be a sense of unity at Wolves again – witness how many of the first-team players watched on at the training ground as Pedro Neto continued his comeback from injury in a development game. This is a big squad now but it seems to be a happy one.
“I just try to be honest with the players. We have space for 20 players in a squad and maybe one or two have to stay here and wait for the chance. It is good for competition in the week. After that, I choose. I want to continue having this problem. It is good for us.”
He is using that depth. Rayan Ait-Nouri’s winner at Everton was the first goal by a Wolves substitute this season, but in the most recent away game at Southampton, Joao Gomes repeated the trick on his debut. Lopetegui has helped change games from the bench.
It is not just the goals. He switched formation in each of his first four games by introducing defender Toti Gomes, made a triple change at half-time in the fifth game, and saw substitutes Joao Moutinho and Adama Traore combine to set up a goal in his sixth.
It has earned him the affection of the Molineux crowd, who have quickly taken to singing of super Lopetegui. But do not expect any fist-pumping celebrations in front of the stadium’s South Bank. Lopetegui is a more understated figure.
“I am grateful for the love of the fans. But football is for the players. They are the main actors. We are, all of us, the staff, the whole club, here to help them develop in the best way. But they are the ones out fighting for the club on the pitch.
“We have to stay one step behind the team. Always. It is the team that has to feel the support of the fans because it is going to be key in these last moments of the season. It is going to be hard for a lot of teams and you have to be strong until the end.”
Hard work. It is the mantra now.
“I am happy with the commitment of the players, they work hard every day. But we need points. We have to be ready for the race. We have to have this mentality. We are in the middle of the storm now. We are in the middle of the river. We have to keep working.”
With Julen Lopetegui, just as Robert Plant once yelled, the song remains the same.