Michael Laudrup: the brilliant playmaker who sits alongside the greatest

Michael Laudrup: the brilliant playmaker who sits alongside the greatest

IT’S 7 JANUARY 1995 – EL CLÁSICO DAY. The tension, as always, is incredibly high, but this match between Real Madrid and Barcelona, midway through the campaign, has the feel of a contest that will prove pivotal come the final match week when the league trophy is handed out and the winners are separated from the losers.

A win would see the Catalan club leapfrog Madrid in the table and give them the upper hand in a heated La Liga title chase, while Madrid have the opportunity to open up a sizeable five-point gap over their bitter rivals by clinching victory.

The margins for error are always slim when these two giants of world football do battle. There’s a sanctity involved whenever they square up to each other, but there is a heightened sense of revenge hanging over the famed Santiago Bernabéu on this occasion: an inner intuition that although these matches are never ordinary affairs, the plot that is about to unfold in front of the millions watching worldwide will set the tone for the remainder of the season.

An astonishing 5-0 thumping was dished out to the Madridistas 12 months prior by a potent Barça team as a splendid hat trick from Romário, combined with a goal apiece by Ronald Koeman and Iván Iglesias, sealed an emphatic win that is still celebrated by fans of the club to this day.

The big talking point, however, is that Michael Laudrup is gearing up for his first appearance against Barcelona since his free transfer away from the Nou Camp. Rumours of an acrimonious departure, fuelled by a falling out with Johan Cruyff, have added a dash of something extra spicy to the dish of the day – talk of the talented Dane looking to make a point to his old boss has dramatically raised the stakes, both for him and his new club.

Despite the fact that Laudrup has since dismissed any notion of a bitter relationship with Cruyff back then, it is difficult to believe that the Dutch legend could have completely forgiven his former protégé for ever having left the Barça Dream Team all those years ago.

Laudrup was one of their key players, the best passer of a ball in the squad with Koeman, and arguably the most imaginative and inventive guy to boot. He had it all and more, so losing his services to one of their main rivals quickly turned an untouchable side into a vulnerable one. In one fell swoop, the dream had become a sobering reality for Barcelona.

“Laudrup is best player I have ever played with and the fourth best in the history of the game.” Romário

Not only did it force Cruyff to try and find a replacement for him, but it gave Madrid a huge psychological advantage. Laudrup was on the enemy’s side and if he instinctively knew how to unlock defences he only played against once or twice a season, the inclination was that he would do so much more damage against one he had extensive insider knowledge on.

Some opted to view it as a double-cross, an unforgivable betrayal, a move to the dark side. Laudrup himself has always maintained a different, more innocent, line: he had wanted a change.

Whether it truly was the prospect of avoiding stagnation as well as jumping on board a new team that promised freshness which enticed Laudrup to cross the fiery divide, it’s hard to say for sure. Whatever the vagaries of truth, the reality was undeniable because by the time the sun set on the Spanish capital that winter evening, long after his first 90 minutes tormenting his former Barça teammates had elapsed, Laudrup’s genius versatility and ability to conquer even those who knew him best was clear to see.

Supplying plenty of great assistance to the front line, the former Brøndby IF starlet was in fine form from the get-go, and perhaps his stand-out moment of that first El Clásico match from the 1994-95 campaign came when he set up Iván Zamorano for his third goal of the night.

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After a lofted ball is pinged in towards Zamorano’s head deep inside opposition territory, it’s nodded hopefully toward goal by the in-form striker as Laudrup, a couple of steps off the pace of a retreating defender, senses an opportunity and goes in chase.

Picking up the tempo, the Denmark international closes the gap within a matter of yards and puts pressure on the covering full-back as the ball bounces out wide in the direction of the goal-line. Outmuscling his man by forcing himself into his space, he simultaneously wraps his foot around the ball to execute a great tackle and with an audacious spin – typical of his game – quickly leaves the defender for dead as he shifts his body to tighten the angle against the goalkeeper whom he’s suddenly bearing down upon.

A shuffle of his feet to change momentum and a slide of the white ball across the face of goal, beyond the ‘keeper’s palm and past a defender’s lunge, he smoothly pilots it safely into the path of Zamorano near the back post who slots coolly home inside the six-yard area to seal a first-half 3-0 lead that effectively ends the match as a contest.

People rightly remember that evening for the Chilean’s hat-trick, and it’s easy to grasp why that sticks out in their minds, but when one looks back on that big match, the football romantic within can’t help but notice those sorts of adroit moments from Laudrup.

His work rate was questioned by some in his prime, but watching him hunt that lost cause to set up his team-mate is evidence enough that he could put in a graft just like anyone else.

Besides, there is the argument that his exceptional talent lent itself to a more easy-going style; he often had a languid brilliance the mediocre resent and the fantastic recognise. There were snapshots of his greatness all over that match, just as they were over so many of his other outings in Spain’s top tier, but no matter what a player like him does in a rip-roaring match like it, it’s the goals that will last longest in the memory – the scoresheet tells its own story and Laudrup didn’t write his name into those scripts often enough, although he did net a few crackers in his time.

“When Michael plays like a dream, a magic illusion, determined to show his new team his extreme abilities, no one in the world comes anywhere near his level.” Johan Cruyff

What should stick out for every lover of football, however, is that Laudrup was the first player to feature in back-to-back 5-0 El Clásico wins with different clubs. What’s more, it’s impossible to deny the simple statistic that Barcelona won four league crowns in a row with him in their side, but once he departed for Madrid their clenched grip was loosened.

Ultimately, he proved the difference. He was the title catalyst for both and although he slept with the enemy he was always loved by both sets of fans because he worked hard for each of them, won them silverware and created special moments on the pitch that deserve to be remembered as much as a trio of strikes.

Every generation has its football darlings – the players who are showered with plaudits by their numberless admirers and even respected by the ones who pretend to dislike them.

Through the 1960s Pelé ruled the roost. In the 1970s, it was Johan Cruyff. In the 1980s, Diego Maradona thrived. The 1990s saw a proliferation of stars spring up to capture our attentions in the shapes of Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio and many more besides. In the noughties, yet more legends wowed us with their phenomenal skill as Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo dominated pub talk and water-cooler conversations.

There will always be names and faces that tower over a certain period of history, but where there is glorious remembrance there will always be the jilted entertainers, the guys who somehow manage to miss out on inclusion in the top three or five performers of a particular era when push comes to shove. They achieve so much in the game and yet are somehow left out of the élan du jour shortlist of greats for whatever reasons. It’s a mixture of misfortune, misplaced loyalties and a little miscalculation, too.

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In many ways, Michael Laudrup has been one such player. Captivating in his prime, he has arguably attracted greater praise since retiring than he ever did when he was still active. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but one doesn’t often win awards retrospectively.

What does come, though, is a newfound respect and a recognition that the brilliant Danish craftsman managed to capture a significant part of what it meant to be an on-pitch creator better than anyone else. He embodied its natural charm, the way he waited until the last possible nanosecond before flitting to the left or right of an incoming tackle. His anticipation was second to none. When he invited a would-be challenger to dispossess him there was something of the maverick westerner about his stance – pausing momentarily before drawing his weapon, darting off, carrying the ball with him as he rode over one challenge and the next.

It wasn’t pure skill for the sake of showboating either. There was a purpose to these moves that would either see him zip off down the flank or further in field, because it allowed him to create the necessary angles that channelled his passes.

People often say that he could see things before they’d happen and there’s a sliver of truth to that fantasy because he saw the move developing in his mind’s eye, and when he drifted about the park with a sea of opposing bodies between him and a forward lying in wait it was very often a case of creating disorder from order – and vice-versa – that enabled him to bring a vision of an assisted goal to breathtaking life.

Today, people are infatuated with the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry, the rise of statistics since the late 1990s adding to their exclusivity and overarching involvement across the worldwide conversation about the who’s who of the beautiful game. It’s no secret that records have become an increasingly pivotal part of the modern game, often saturating the discussion and proving the go-to source to decide heated arguments about exactly who is a better footballer.

However, pre-stats engines and heatmaps, there was a world of football out there and it consisted of equally brilliant guys playing some mind-bending stuff – which is why figures like Laudrup sort of get pushed to the side.

“In the 1960s, the best player was Pelé; in the 1970s, it was Cruyff; in the 1980s, it was Maradona; and in the 1990s, it’s Laudrup.” Franz Beckenbauer

Strangely enough, despite being primarily celebrated as an exquisite passer of the ball from short to long range, concrete statistics about Laudrup’s assists are difficult to come by. Nevertheless, there are quite a few certainties one can glean from several important correlations, which prove beyond much doubt that he was just as good, if not better, than the guys who came after him.

First, before he made his daring move across the Clásico divide, a certain Los Blancos player, Zamorano, was struggling to get amongst the goals. The 1993-94 La Liga campaign saw the Chilean striker pocket just 11 goals as manager Benito Floro’s men finished in fourth place, well off the pace of champions Barcelona, aided by Laudrup, who took the league crown on goal difference.

The balance of power was clearly in the Blaugrana’s favour and although their squad was jam-packed with all manner of brilliant players such as Romário and Ronald Koeman, it was Laudrup who was capable of producing the splash of magic, the special ingredient that improved the Catalan recipe tenfold.

The following season, as Laudrup teamed up with a side he had become quite accustomed to besting, Zamorano was one of the main benefactors as he added a whopping 17 goals on top of his previous end-of-season tally to finish with 28 goals, top of the marksmen class in Spain’s La Liga as Madrid wound up title winners, swatting aside all challengers as they did so.

Zamorano justly took the Pichichi trophy, the adulation and the smattering of confetti, but Laudrup had to content himself with something less material than bronze or gold – the ability to cross divides unscathed with his head held high.

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There can be no doubt that if Laudrup had been around today, he would have appeared on Opta and WhoScored databases with more regularity than Mesut Özil, Christian Eriksen and Cesc Fàbregas at their respective peaks. After all, in his 75 European Cup appearances (including UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and Super Cup bows) reliable records show that he netted 20 goals and picked up 19 assists – pretty consistent all round.

That he rose to prominence at a time when number crunching wasn’t quite as sought after as it is now is merely an unlucky consequence of timing, but those that saw him play in his prime will always recall him as one of the best of all-time – even if the prize-givers don’t have him listed as being voted as such.

That’s because he never won the Ballon d’Or, a travesty that his most faithful of followers – and even his sometime critics – have used to detract from its merit. Pep Guardiola once said of the award that because Laudrup never won it, it wasn’t worth all that much. How’s that for praise from one of the modern game’s leading lights and most respected of tacticians?

The most recognisable individual accolade wasn’t all he missed out on, of course, because he was absent from Denmark’s grandest of triumphs on the international football stage as he went AWOL for their unlikely 1992 European Championship triumph.

Seemingly uninterested in the manager’s tactics, he opted not to team up with the squad after they were called up to take the place of Yugoslavia following the Eastern European nation’s exclusion from the tournament after war broke out there. Nobody fancied Denmark’s chances of even getting out of their group, especially with one of the Laudrup brothers missing, but the Scandinavians would go on to win it outright, and they did it all without their most intelligent of players – a piece of information which has always been used to lift the team’s victory to an even higher platform.

Some contend that the Danish side would not have had the same joy with Laudrup on board – his penchant for probing and looking to play high up the pitch to instigate attacking moves, it has been suggested, would have detracted from their deep-lying, counter-attacking style. It’s a bit of a stretch and it’s perhaps not worth thinking on too much.

They won it without him and against all the odds, but his absence and lack of a winner’s medal with the nordic nation should not take away anything from the career Laudrup had with his home country. In all, he recorded over a century of international caps with 104 to his name, scoring 37 goals and playing some phenomenal football much like the stylish individual powerhouse display he produced alongside his fellow Danish Dynamite stars against Uruguay in Mexico 1986.

Watching back the grainy VHS quality video of his performance that day, his burgeoning brilliance remains a delight to behold. In fact, it’s hard to believe that the man of the match is only 21 at the time. His assured movements are more in line with an experienced pro, but Laudrup had little interest in acting his age on the pitch – plus, he had just earned the honour of having a Serie A medal draped around his neck, so his confidence was sky-high.

Testing the waters against a back line which contains River Plate and Palmeiras defenders as well as a tenacious battler in the form of José Batista, who would go on to become something of an unwanted record-holder by getting sent off after less than a minute against Scotland in the round of 16, Laudrup has a tough task in front of him. His initial forays forward bear no fruit for the then-Juventus midfielder as he sees some passes go astray and a couple of adventurous dribbles shut down, but his persistence pays off when his quick feet finds a way to undo the entire rear-guard.

Slaloming past two Uruguayans, he gallops closer to goal with the ball at his feet before slipping a delectable pass behind the cover into the path of Preben Elkjær, who fires the Danes into a 1-0 lead inside the opening 11 minutes.

The Bianconeri youngster grabs another assist in the second half to set up the same striker, but it is his jaw-dropping solo, round-the-keeper goal in the second half that confirms his genius to the watching wider audience and sees that Denmark side celebrated as a cult icon in the years following.

That was Laudrup all over – incisive, silky, effective and captivating. More evident than all those characteristics, though, was his instinct to produce luxurious manoeuvers, the way he dragged the ball from one foot to the other to evade slide tackles and boxing stances, how he danced through gaps he created for himself, his artistic touches that put others in the limelight – because while it might be fair to say that he was underrated, there’s a little more truth in the notion that he was underexposed.

Then again, the best gems are always hidden.

By Trevor Murray  @TrevorM90

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