Michael Laudrup: Football is not life or death
Swansea City's manager has done better than merely staving off second-season syndrome – but, as he tells Ian Herbert, he has no intention of staying in the game for as long as Sir Alex Ferguson
It was the question of whether he saw himself managing for as long as Sir Alex Ferguson that caused Michael Laudrup to drop his usual earnest countenance yesterday. "Thirty years? I will just be happy to be alive in 30 years," he said. "When you go on for so long it becomes a lifestyle more than a job. I respect him a lot but it's not for me."
Management is not life or death for Laudrup, who faces Ferguson's Manchester United tomorrow. He told me this summer, when taking on arguably the least enviable job in the Premier League, tasked with avoiding second-season syndrome while shorn of Swansea City's best players, that he would never be at it for as long as Giovanni Trapattoni and Luis Aragones. "If we don't want to do it we say 'no'. Nobody forces us to do this job. We have to make the decision how long we do this."
He talks with such perspective and is of such a playing pedigree that it is one of the curiosities of the Premier League season that he has avoided the spotlight this autumn, while steering Swansea to 10th spot on more points than Brendan Rodgers managed at last season's halfway mark.
It's a remarkable feat, considering Rodgers snaffled Joe Allen for Liverpool, Tottenham took Gylfi Sigurdsson and Manchester City pinched Scott Sinclair. There was also the challenge of succeeding Rodgers, the man who "seemed to know the name of everyone's second cousin", as someone put it.
Even within the club, there was a feeling that things might need time to bed in. That things have, in fact, bedded down so soon owes much to Laudrup's eye for a player. He was surprised this summer by the poor value in the market for the British players he wanted to form two-thirds of his team and had to turn to Spain, where he had managed Getafe and Real Mallorca, to acquire Michu from Rayo Vallecano for £2m and Pablo Hernandez from Valencia. He also took Ki Sung-yueng from Celtic.
Hernandez was superb before injury, Ki impressive at times, but Michu has been the revelation. Though he shares the position of Premier League top scorer with a certain other tall left-footer who will be in South Wales tomorrow, Laudrup argued yesterday that his man's accomplishment is better than Robin van Persie's.
"When you see them they look alike, they are tall, not very fast but they know exactly where to make the runs," Laudrup said. "Van Persie is a bit different because he plays for top teams who attack a lot and he can afford to be much more in the box. He's been an international player for a long time but Michu has been with small clubs. To say someone plays for Man United and is top scorer is very normal, but playing for Swansea? That's not so normal at this stage. Michu just has to work for the team – we have to keep it tight to beat Man United on Sunday. It's important for us he's scores goals but his other [statistics] are more important for us."
Michu, like a number of other Swansea players, feels it is the unfettered nature of Laudrup's management which has helped. He engages immeasurably less with the players but is more bothered by his team than the opposition. Home or away, Chelsea or Southampton, it is broadly the same game plan. "He gives the players freedom; he hardly corrects you while you are on the pitch and that gives players so much confidence," Michu said recently. "And you can see what a player he was; when he gets involved in one of our 'rondos' [training-ground passing drills] he is the best player by some distance."
Rodgers' wide players have been given freedom to drift in and out more. Wayne Routledge – not a constant in the side last season – has come on in leaps and bounds. Nathan Dyer, a natural winger, is also learning the new ways. Results against big clubs – draws with Chelsea and Liverpool, victory over Arsenal and Newcastle United – have been impressive and the consistency of approach meant there was no great secret yesterday to the way Laudrup was preparing for United.
"You have to defend very well," he said. "Not too close or too deep because they have wide players that are very skilful and you have the killer inside the box, which is Van Persie, or it can be [Javier] Hernandez if he comes in; and then you have Rooney coming from the second line and he is so difficult to mark. So you have to push forward but concentrate a lot on their front four.
"Then you have to dare to play when you have the ball because they have conceded a lot of goals. That gives us encouragement."
Laudrup has turned around the notion of every club knowing Swansea's secrets, to say that his players – of whom Leon Britton has been as reliable as ever – are the wiser ones now. "Last season when we played [United in November and lost 1-0] the players faced players they had only seen on television. That [sense of awe] happens everywhere but [while] it's OK for five minutes, if it goes on for 90 minutes you will lose. But that will not happen now. I think we have done very well against the other big clubs, so why can't we do it against United? I'm really not worried about this game."
You get the impression Laudrup wasn't poring over that Harvard analysis of Ferguson's management ethos this week. "I don't know his methods and how he works because I've only met him once or twice. I can only see the numbers and what he's won and how long he's been there," he said, displaying more of that rich sense of perspective.
Swans on song: Record against big clubs
Despite losing at Manchester City and Tottenham, Michael Laudrup's Swansea have prospered against the bigger sides this season:
* 31 Oct: Liverpool (a), won 3-1
Swans reach League Cup quarter-finals after memorable victory.
* 3 Nov: Chelsea (h), drew 1-1
Pablo Hernandez (above) earns draw with European champions.
* 17 Nov: Newcastle (a), won 2-1
Michu and Jonathan De Guzman secure victory over the Magpies.
* 1 Dec: Arsenal (a), won 2-0
Michu again the hero as the Spaniard scores two late goals.
As Getafe manager, Laudrup beat Barcelona 2-0 and won 1-0 at Real Madrid in the 2007-08 season.
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