Michael Laudrup: Swansea's new pass master
It's in the blood of the new manager to maintain the tradition of possession that has been instilled in south Wales, he tells Ian Herbert, but he's also wary of catching second-season syndrome
He does not turn heads, as he always did in Madrid, Turin and Barcelona, but the receptionist seems slightly breathless when she sees him striding across the car park and there's a minor flutter about the Liberty Stadium as he sweeps through it. Even on a slate grey day in Swansea, Michael Laudrup has an aura.
The arrival of an individual, whose image a young Andres Iniesta pinned to his wall, at a football club which was close to bankruptcy 10 years ago is a fairly remarkable one, even now that Swansea are big enough to have provided Liverpool with a new manager, and Laudrup does not pretend to have known what lay beyond the Port Talbot steelworks when he turned off the M4 for a new home. "I'm from Denmark, a small country, so I understand how it is," he says. "I still remember when I arrived in Italy [at Juventus] in 1983 and I said 'Denmark'. They said: 'Ah... that's the capital of Sweden'. I said: 'No! Hell, no!'"
He selects deftly from experience to connect with a country he had previously associated only with Mark Hughes and a 1-0 defeat at Ninian Park with Denmark in 1987 in a European Championship qualifier (Denmark qualified, Wales didn't). He rather enjoyed playing the nationalist at a meeting of Premier League managers in London the other day, reminding them that they should stop referring to "England". "I think everyone understands I'm from a small country as well," he says.
Though he's learning fast, the curve is about to get very steep. Peter Schmeichel, Jan Molby and John Jensen, the Danish friends whose counsel he sought after Swansea asked him to succeed Brendan Rodgers in June, had only positive messages but did warn him that "you know as well as we do that the second year in the Premier League will be very difficult" for Swansea. That was before Rodgers snaffled Joe Allen, Tottenham took Gylfi Sigurdsson and Manchester City starting eyeing Scott Sinclair, for whom a £6m bid may come any day. It has not escaped Laudrup's attention that predictions are circulating that "the three promoted teams, Swansea and maybe Norwich are the favourites to go down".
He is talking from his small office at the Liberty Stadium which, by its sheer minimalism, tells the story of a manager who has not even moved in yet, let alone got his feet under a table. The coathangers are idle, the swan crystal decanter unused, the desk empty. Here is the bolthole from which he must plot a way to advance a club which was the delight of last season's Premier League but which, he agrees, has now lost all its surprises. "If it's difficult to reach the top, it's more difficult to stay there," he says. "And that's because, as you say, the surprise is not there any more. And when there is not a surprise you have to know and realise it will be more difficult. Everyone has analysed Swansea from last season. Everyone has seen in which games Swansea has done well, and asked 'why?'"
Of course, the man in possession of all the surprises was Rodgers, whose Championship play-off trophy sits at the front of the trophy cabinet in reception, the ribbons still on, and for whom you feel this city slightly mourns, despite the indignity of his return for Allen. Rodgers was the man who "seemed to know the name of everyone's second cousin" as one observer puts it, while Laudrup is certainly more distant. It is telling that when asked if there is one lesson he has taken from the great managers he worked for in a glittering career as the best of the best in the midfields of Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid, he cites Johan Cruyff's taciturnity in Catalonia. "Sometimes you don't need to stand there and talk for an age but do it in a minute or two," Laudrup says. "A short message. There you go."
Cruyff's ability to make every training session relevant to the next weekend's work is the other big idea that he took away.
He can talk though, with a force, certainty and philosophy that the Premier League doesn't know about yet and which means that forcing in the supplementary question requires some practice. This is the first manager from whom I have heard the term "footballistic" – used in the course of a comparison between Swansea and Getafe, a very small Spanish club he took to big places. He also brings excellent analysis of the nature of human dynamics to Glamorgan. "When you start you have a group and we are all selfish, you know. I want the best team, the players they want to play. The club are selfish they want the best players for the best money."
The Swansea chairman, Huw Jenkins, appointed him, on a four–year deal, because he wanted continuity of the passing game inculcated at the club by Roberto Martinez and Rodgers. Laudrup will produce something very similar – yet a narrower form of 4-3-3, without the wingers touching the white lines as they did for Rodgers, and with a little less of the "Swanselona" ball retention and pass completion statistics. Expect a slightly earlier killer pass, too.
It is a Rodgers with pragmatism, you might say. "Yeah, I'm a possession guy, I like to do that," Laudrup says. "That's my roots in the south and especially in Spain. I was brought up on all that and that's also why I'm here: me who hasn't had any relationship with football here. You might say I would like to go a little earlier, yes. Overall, I think my philosophy on possession is that it is a means to distract the other team. So you keep the ball, move the ball around and suddenly there will be a space somewhere for some player to receive the ball in a good position for us where he – and we – can do damage. Sometimes you can look at possession where its 62/38 but its 3-0 for the team without possession. It's not the 62 per cent that matters but what did they do? How many chances did they create? Sometimes you see a player coming off after a game and you say 'Oh, he ran 8.5 miles'. And so? But what did he do with the ball?"
He has lost some of the players who delivered Rodgers his big stat numbers, though, and while Allen's £15m departure has made Swansea as cash-rich as they have ever been, the scars of the club's financial past create an inherent reticence about blowing it. Laudrup has been surprised by the poor value in the market for British players he wants to form two-thirds of his team – an asking price of £4m for Bolton's Mark Davies, for instance.
Instead he has turned to Spain for £2m midfielder Michu, from Rayo Vallecano, has signed defenders Chico and Jonathan de Guzman – both of whom he knew from Real Mallorca, another of the small clubs where he succeeded before the owner's interfering drove him out.
Even within the club, there is a feeling that things may take a month or so to bed in, which may make it a good or bad thing that Swansea's first very challenging period includes fixtures against Manchester City and Chelsea in the space of seven days, in late October and early November.
This feels like a narrative of unsparing pressure on a 44-year-old though Laudrup wears a champion's aura because he has been one. "If we don't want to do it we say 'no'. Nobody forces us to do this job," he says. "I started in Italy in '83 [at Juventus] as a foreigner when we were allowed two foreigners per team. The other was a certain Michel Platini. Imagine that pressure.
"The big steps at this club have already been made here and you cannot continue building like that because you will end up at the top of the Premier League and I think it's a bit early to talk about that. Now you have to put the small blocks on top. That could be to be more solid, to have alternatives when Plan A is not working; small things, tactically, which maybe could still surprise the opponent either during the game – or from one game to another. And most important you want to try to find the next Leon Britton, Joe Allen. That's the challenge, and what people really want."
The storm clouds are still outside when he has finished talking, but Michael Laudrup feels like a good man to have in the building.
Great Dane: Laudrup's career
1981-82 KB (14 games, 3 goals)
1982-83 Brondby (38/24)
1983-89 Juventus (102/16)
1983-85 Lazio (loan; 60/9)
1989-94 Barcelona (167/49)
1994-96 Real Madrid (62/12)
1996-97 Vissel Kobe (15/6)
1997-98 Ajax (21/11)
104 caps for Denmark, scoring 37 goals
2008-09 Spartak Moscow
2012 Swansea City
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