Unheralded Genius | Michael Laudrup – The Danish Wizard

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

 Franz Beckenbauer

Languid. Fluid. Silky. Such adjectives are descriptive but you shall still end up feeling that they are not worthy enough to explain the genius of a man. The genius of a man who silently, yet effectively, was the best player of the last decade of the previous century. Michael Laudrup was a very unique player. He was one of those who made the journey over the unholy divide of playing for the two greatest clubs, not only in Spain but in Europe and the whole world.

Barcelona fans worshipped him when he was there at their club while Real Madrid fans would remember him as the one who helped them wrest the title back from their rivals after a period of drought. He will be remembered as the one who gave Ivan Zamorano a new lease of life after the Chilean had gone through a stale period of time in front of the goal.

Michael Laudrup was always respected for the gentleman he was on and off the pitch. There are some who believe there is a right way to play football. Then there are even more who look to implement it on the footballing pitch. Laudrup always believed in fast, attacking and attractive brand of football. This does not come off as a surprise to someone who has seen him play. Laudrup was a creative cauldron who could pick out any pass all over the pitch at his will.

He was extremely agile and would inspire someone who watches him today as an Andres Iniesta would probably do. The comparison sprang to my mind because of the way Laudrup would effortlessly glide all across the pitch, just like Iniesta would. Laudrup was mainly an attacking midfielder and would be given a free role in his team’s system. He was such a player around whom a team could function and was thus given the liberty to roam around.

“Who is the best player in history? Laudrup.” 

Andres Iniesta

Laudrup was in an era where the number mongering or stat padding was not of much consideration. Statistics and other data would not do justice to the sheer individual brilliance of Michael Laudrup. Questions may be asked as to why he was never lauded quite the same way while he was still playing. Some players just come across that way. A series of niggling injuries in the beginning of his career, a temporary retirement from international football in between, switching from Barcelona to Real Madrid and above all, a demure and uncanny ability to just move across the pitch as if he never had a worry in the world- these things might have added up against his favour. His lack of work rate in tracking back was always a downside to his game. But players like Laudrup can be afforded this luxury. He saw himself as someone who would rather spend his energy up field trying to unlock a defense rather than expend it in recovering the ball.

Laudrup could never settle down at a club throughout his career. Having started out at KB in Denmark he was noticed for his spell at Brondby wherein he enjoyed a successful run in front of the goal. This got him a move to Italy where he would sign for Italian Champions Juventus. Having already signed Zbigniew Boniek and Michael Platini, Laudrup was loaned to Lazio due to rule of having a maximum of two foreign players in the team.

While he could never find his feet at Lazio due to the team’s overall struggles and subsequent relegation the year after, Laudrup was not able to assert his dominance. He would finally play for Juvetus in the 1985-86 season and would immediately go on to win the Serie A title with the Old Lady. His career there was marred with injuries and never could show the world what he was made up of.

“One of the biggest talents ever. The best in the world on the training pitch, but never used his talent to its full during matches. 

Michel Platini

Laudrup won the 1985 Danish Player of the Year and soon enough the tables were set for Laudrup to be the star man for the team after Platini retired. He could not however, match those standards as he failed to find the net in the subsequent season despite featuring in all the games of the 87-88 season.

“The best player I have ever played with and the 4th best in the history of the game” 

Romario

Laudrup joined Barcelona in 1989 after his somewhat unsuccessful spell at Juventus. This was the pivotal point in his career as this was the platform he needed to thrive in and realise his potential for greatness. He became a vital part of Johan Cruyff’s “Dream Team” and would become the team’s most influential fulcrum. The core axis of Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup and Hristo Stoichkov would go on to lead Barcelona to numerous trophies including the 1991-92 European Cup.

Barcelona won four consecutive La Liga titles with Laudrup in their side. The problems started towards the final season at Barcelona. The relationship soured between him and Cruyff to such an extent that he did not feature in the Champions League final against AC Milan. Barcelona got thumped 4-0 and after the match Fabio Capello, the AC Milan manager then was heard quoting “Laudrup was the guy I feared but Cruyff left him out, and that was his mistake.”

After falling out with Johan Cruyff, the then Barcelona coach, Laudrup decided to make the biggest and most controversial decision of his life thus far. What exactly made him make the move no one would know. It was a common theory to suggest that Laudrup made a move to Real as they were equal in terms of size and ambition of the Catalan club and had the resources and platform for Laudrup to thrive in. Yet you would not associate a man like Laudrup to hold grudges and make such decisions.

When asked about the move he quipped that he had wanted a change in his career and Real’s project drew him in. Yet there was an air of animosity after Laudrup had made the move. While some of the Cules may have not forgiven him for the transfer, it is safe to say that the majority have forgiven him for it. Even more intriguing is that the Barcelona board considered hiring him as their manager a few years ago. Such was the respect and dignity that Michael Laudrup commanded.

“Michael was possibly the most skilful and elegant player I ever played with. Few could dribble like he could. He could sense when a game was ready to be seized and transformed by a moment of individual brilliance.” 

Ronald Koeman

Michael Laudrup was the first and only person till date to feature in back to back 5-0 wins in the Classico. When he was at Barcelona, his final season at the club, Brazilian striker Romario bagged a hat trick with Ronald Koeman and Ivan Iglesias netting one each in a 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid. Laudrup did not bag the headlines that day obviously but he was brilliant on the day. But what was more sensational was the fact that he featured in a 5-0 win again the next season in the Classico. This time though he was on the other side and helping a certain Ivan Zamorano score a hat trick of his own.

The air was bubbling with a sensation that something might explode soon that day when Barcelona came to face Real. Laudrup was in no small part a reason for this. Barcelona knew what they were facing when he lined up against them that day. They had seen enough of him to recognize his brilliance and sheer audacity to unlock defences at his will. That day, Michael Laudrup played like a man possessed. A man who seemed determined to prove a point against his former employers. Even more determined to show what his new team had invested in his form. That win laid the foundation on which Real Madrid would win the title back from Barcelona as they comfortably maintained their lead at the top.

“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

Ivan Zamorano won the Pichichi trophy with 28 goals for the season and till date, a majority of the fans would remember his goal scoring exploits as reason for Real’s title win. It remains in no doubt that this was crucial in their victory but it was no coincidence that Michael Laudrup had won the title again with real Madrid after having continuously won it for four seasons prior to that at Barcelona. While Zamorano was celebrated and adored for his goals, Laudrup was silently in the scenes behind the title win.

 “Un genio!”, “The reason why I make so many goals, is Laudrup.”  

Ivan Zamorano

His stint with his national team was also marked with controversy then and there. He was a part of the golden era of the Danish national team as they had the likes of Preben Elkjaer and Soren Lerby. Denmark won the Euro 1992 but it was without Laudrup in their ranks did they manage to do it. He did not like the style of the then manager, Moller Nielsen. Nielsen was assistant to the previous manager Sepp Piontek and took over the reins of the national team after he decided to step down in 1990.

The Danish national team had failed to qualify for the 1990 World Cup and it was time up for Piontek. This however had adverse effects as both the Laudrup brothers decided not to feature on the Euros squad. Michael Laudrup especially believed that the counter attacking style was not attractive and the manager did not believe in playing an attractive brand of football. Counter attacking he believed was the way to bring the best out of the team. With Laudrup opting out of the squad, few would have thought that Denmark would have gone on to win the tournament.

It was at that period of time that Laudrup was being lauded and noticed for the genius he was for his stint at Barcelona. However the Danes would go on to upset everyone and win the title, ironically playing the ‘bland brand of football’ that Laudrup did not fancy. This would always count against Laudrup as it somewhat gave proof that the national team did not rely upon him to win the Euros even if they were not equal to the other European giants on paper.

It is of no doubt that Laudrup is one of the greatest players to have played for the Danish national team as he was capped 104 times for them. He scored 37 goals for Denmark but could never win a medal with them.

A tactical insight into how Laudrup played

Killer ball specialist:

A deeper look into the way Laudrup plays, you immediately realise that he is an extremely fine passer of the ball. Laudrup is not the kind of a player who keeps your team ticking. No it is not that kind of passing that Laudrup specialises in. Rather, it is the final ball in the attacking third that he was a ruddy good specialist in. He would be the orchestrator of the through ball that would break open the final line of defense. His accuracy in playing such passes was second to none.

His ability to manipulate deep blocks and still find killer balls in such tight situations was his biggest asset. Laudrup’s passes require great attention to even understand their significance. His lofted passes were brilliant as they were always exquisitely weighed. The lofted through balls always put the striker in on goal beyond the last man. This did not compromise on the goalkeeper being able to cut out the pass before the striker could reach it though. Such was his elegance in playing those passes that the strikers in front of him did not have to think twice to make a run for a pass to reach him.

Dynamic dribbling:

Laudrup’s dribbling was a thing of beauty. There was almost an air of arrogance in the way he left defenders flailing in the ground as he soared past them. Again this is where I got reminded of Andres Iniesta when I was watching videos of Laudrup. The way he glides past defenders is effortless. But Laudrup takes it to the next level when he waits for the defender to commit himself before making his move or turn. This is very reminiscent of the way a Lionel Messi or a Paul Pogba or an Andres Iniesta would dribble.

The likening is more subtle and perfect if you take Iniesta into consideration. The dribbling was very dynamic from Laudrup as he was extremely agile in his movements. The way he would leave the ball exposes for tenths of seconds so as to draw the defender and go past them is something that can never be taught or practised. It is something that has to come naturally to player and Laudrup was never short of blessings in this aspect.

Laudrup would always be more effective on the left flank or right behind the striker. A free role suited his abilities perfectly and playing on the left flank allowed him to cut inside at will. Playing on the tight lank would greatly diminish his dynamics as he was the sort of a player who would depend on the hesitation in a defender’s mind to get past him. He had an uncanny ability of going past players. His dynamism helped him in going past players who stood still against him in anticipation of the direction he would move into.

The problem for the defenders in such instances was that Laudrup had a wicked change of pace in him and his acceleration would easily get him past those defenders with his ball control impeccable at such times. The way he beat deep blocks was a joy to behold. Laudrup was one such player who could easily excite a common football fan who would watch his phenomenal dribbling skills and be amazed while also making a keener observer to stand up and take notice of the tactical reasons behind his feints and dropping movements. His trademark Croqueta was brilliant to watch when in full flow.

Space manipulation and its understanding:

His ability to play in between the lines was his prime asset. He would easily shake off a man marker with his off the ball movement and take the marker to zones he would not want to occupy ideally. This link up play facilitated by Laudrup would result in a lot of contribution to goals which he would either score himself or create for his teammates. He literally could see what others could not and would use his excellent vision to conjure an unplayable pass and put a teammate through in.

His understanding of space is probably the most underrated of his features. This can be put in terms of him occupying space in between the lines and also the nature of his passes. No one quite can match Laudrup in the way he could manipulate space. All of his above said assets bring in this quality of his to feature. His use of space was well documented in both his use of dribbles and the quality of his through balls. The through balls from Laudrup are spectacular just because of this as they exploit the most miniscule of spaces into giving his teammates a positional advantage. This was the reason why Laudrup reached his zenith under Cruyff, the master of positional play.

The legacy of Michael Laudrup:

There is no doubt in the genius of Michael Laudrup. The Dane was a brilliant playmaker who could swing the fortunes towards his sides’ single-handedly. He embodied his principles and always personified them both on and off the pitch. As a manager his sides were always known for the brilliant style of play they adopted. Brondby flourished under him while both Getafe and Swansea were acknowledged to have punched above their weight under his guidance.

His shrewd acquisitions when in charge of those clubs were lauded. But Laudrup was always prone to not being in good terms with those in the upper echelons of the club’s hierarchy and things fell apart badly, especially during his time at Swansea. This was even the more troubling considering the fact that Laudrup had guided them to their first ever competitive cup trophy in their history.

As a player, Laudrup never got his due recognition as he was never at a consistent peak anywhere. His genus was always there for everyone to see. He was caught in between the generations where the likes of Michael Platini started to decline and Diego Maradona fresh off his World Cup winning exploits while the 90’s saw Roberto Baggio and even Zinedine Zidane towards its end. In between these generations, Laudrup was arguably the best player to have played. He was an artist in many ways.

A silky and languid artist while he was at it. His croquetas were dazzling and the way he danced past defenders will never get old. His career, both player and managerial, will always be looked back at as not always the best decisions made and to an extent, poor luck. He will never be forgotten and it is perhaps testament to his genius that he shall always be remembered as the greatest underrated player of all time.

One might argue that a player of his calibre did not win the Ballon D’Or. But that should not retract the praise he is worthy of. Individual awards matter for little for an artist of Laudrup’s magnitude. A certain Josep Guardiola said this of him,

“The best player in the world, I can’t believe he hasn’t won the title as best player.” 

Josep Guardiola

Raghunandhanan Narasimhan

Raghunandhanan Narasimhan

Co-founder and Chief Editor here at FBH. Manchester United fan with an obsession for tactics. Cannot resist admiring quality playmakers and holding midfielders.
Raghunandhanan Narasimhan
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Raghunandhanan Narasimhan

Co-founder and Chief Editor here at FBH. Manchester United fan with an obsession for tactics. Cannot resist admiring quality playmakers and holding midfielders.