Julen Lopetegui has a reputation for friction – but West Ham believe he is worth the risk

Julen Lopetegui clenches his fist and shouts in a Wolves tracksuit top
Julen Lopetegui is known for being a strong-willed character - Getty Images/David Rogers

When Julen Lopetegui took the drastic step of quitting Wolves days before the start of this season, he made the decision with one clear intention.

This was not going to be the end of his Premier League adventure.

Wolves pursued Lopetegui for more than five years before persuading him to join them in November 2022, and his nine months in charge represented some of the best experiences of his career.

Close friends on the management circuit had always told him that English football was unique, and a level above any other European league, and his experiences at Wolves gave him a hunger for more.

He has remained in England, even staying in the Wolverhampton apartment he rented during his time at Molineux.

Lopetegui has done his homework on a number of clubs, including Manchester United, and it now seems inevitable that he will make his return with West Ham.

He has been a potential contender for some time now, with West Ham making background checks on the 57-year-old before finally making contact last month, as Telegraph Sport first revealed.

Lopetegui has vast experience and a reputation for improving teams. He is a Europa League winner with Sevilla and has managed Spain and Real Madrid.

His achievements at Wolves deserve closer scrutiny too. When he succeeded Bruno Lage, the team were second from bottom of the league and relegation was a strong possibility.

Frustration over squad led to exit

Every statistic about the squad he inherited pointed towards a drop into the Championship, yet he guided them to safety comfortably.

Wolves provided significant funds in the January transfer window, with key signings including Matheus Cunha, Craig Dawson and Mario Lemina.

That outlay on players ultimately led to Lopetegui’s departure last summer. With funds restricted because of concerns over breaking the Premier League’s profitability and sustainability rules, Wolves made the decision to sell many of their leading players.

Lopetegui’s frustration increased over pre-season and he did not believe the squad available to him could avoid another relegation fight.

Gary O’Neil’s outstanding work has proven Lopetegui wrong, but it still captured the ruthless side of the Basque coach. The risk of damaging his reputation was too great.

Lopetegui’s task at West Ham will be very different: the top eight will be the minimum target and he will believe he can do it.

West Ham won the Europa Conference League under David Moyes and regular excursions in those competitions, or above, will be seen as a realistic aim.

Lopetegui does have a reputation for friction with senior officials at past clubs, but there is also a view that the best managers can be difficult to work with.

Technical areas will also be worth watching next season – Lopetegui is a serial touchline prowler, and his staff irritated many opposing benches in his season at Wolves.

West Ham fans will expect expansive play

Before his appointment has even been announced, there have been some concerns from West Ham fans over Lopetegui’s style of play.

Moyes is set to depart and, despite his success, there have been persistent issues over what fans perceive as negative tactics.

At Wolves, Lopetegui played with four at the back and expected his players to play out from there. There was a degree of pragmatism and they did often play with a low block.

Lopetegui’s emphasis was more on counter-attacking with speed, utilising athletic and direct wing-backs and wingers.

West Ham fans will expect Lopetegui to be far more expansive. Equally, he will argue that he had no option but to sometimes play conservatively in order to guarantee Wolves’ survival.

This is a challenge he will relish, and his imminent return once again underlines the remarkable impact of managers from the Basque Country on English football.

Mikel Arteta, Unai Emery and Andoni Iraola have made huge impressions in this campaign, and Lopetegui will be hoping to do the same next season.

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