If Michael Laudrup carries on like this, he will find himself among the candidates for Sir Alex Ferguson's job. Since his arrival in English football during the summer the 48-year-old Dane has hardly put a foot wrong and on Sunday his team deservedly held the league leaders to a draw in a match full of incident and excitement.
Laudrup had been informed that last season, as newcomers to the top flight, Swansea showed too much respect when Manchester United arrived at the Liberty Stadium and left with a 1-0 win. There was no such danger this time, when the home team took on Ferguson's side as equals. Despite spending the best years of his playing career in Serie A and La Liga, Laudrup has taken to the Premier League with ease. His linguistic fluency must surely be a help, and perhaps the Danish and English football temperaments are not so far apart. Or maybe Brendan Rodgers, his predecessor, bequeathed him the essentials of a team who play the sort of thoughtful, intelligent football that would attract any coach with progressive ideas.
But, as we saw in Sunday's pulsating contest, Laudrup not only grasped the salient points of Rodgers's blueprint but made significant improvements to it, his additions to the squad demonstrating a wonderfully keen eye for quality at bargain prices. Michu at one end and Chico Flores at the other were outstanding as Swansea went toe-to-toe with United, while Jonathan de Guzmán looked a cut above every other midfield player on the pitch. Michu and Flores costa mere £2m apiece, while De Guzmán is on a season's loan from Villarreal.
To confront the challenge of United, the Dutch midfielder Kemy Agustien was brought into the midfield shield to supply strength and a gift for long passing alongside the less than physically imposing Leon Britton. Laudrup also gave Dwight Tiendalli, another Dutchman, his second league start of the season at right-back, confronting Ashley Young. Both men were outstanding.
Inevitably, given the size of the Welsh club, the manager's resources are slender. Once De Guzmán had been withdrawn in the 70th minute – not, apparently, as a result of having his toe accidentally but painfully trodden on by the referee 10 minutes earlier – and an exhausted Agustien followed him, their replacements were unable to provide a similar spark.
An enforced tactical reorganisation meant Michu was pulled back into central midfield where he spent most of his career in Spain. He had already scored the equaliser, a goal that took him above Robin van Persie at the top of the league standings, and his redeployment must have come as a relief to the sorely tried Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans. Michu suffered not at all by comparison with the £24m Van Persie, which is not to disparage United's top scorer but to emphasise the value of Swansea's new star.
Laudrup prepared for the match by making good choices and sending the team out full of self-belief and enthusiasm. Even in the opening 20 minutes, when United held the initiative and enjoyed a near-monopoly of possession before taking the lead, Swansea found a way to create discomfort among their opponents' rearguard. Whenever Agustien directed a long diagonal pass into the path of Michu, this was anything but a mindless Route One approach. It was a carefully calculated and perfectly legitimate tactic executed by a team that normally specialises in a short-passing game – and one that, when executed with co-ordination, good timing and panache, is as attractive as any amount of tiki-taka. It might have given the home side the lead in the ninth minute had Michu not slashed a left-footed shot wide after using his pace to embarrass Vidic.
All this spoke extremely well for Laudrup. But then why would a man whose playing career encompassed 60 league appearances for Lazio, 102 for Juventus, 167 for Barcelona and 62 for Real Madrid, as well as 104 caps for his country, be remotely overawed by the Premier League? He has triumphed over pressure at the highest levels of the game but clearly does not feel that his reputation confers an automatic entitlement in his new role. It may turn to be a blessing for him that his managerial apprenticeship has not been without its setbacks. He knows his own mind and appears to have found, in Swansea City, a club whose ambitions match those he has for himself at this stage of his career.
After only four and a half months in English football he has many trials to face. No one, however, could fail to be impressed by the way he has met the early challenges or to see in Swansea's ability to reverse United's apparently irresistible first-half momentum anything other than the influence of a man who knows what he is about.
Before Sunday's kick-off, incidentally, there was a brief ceremony in memory of Kenny Morgans, the winger who was spotted playing for Swansea's youth team by Matt Busby, made his Manchester United first-team debut on the pre-Christmas weekend 55 years ago, survived the Munich disaster two months later, returned to play the bulk of his career in Wales, and died last month, aged 73. Sir Bobby Charlton led out Morgan's two sons to lay a wreath on the pitch. After such a dignified salute it seemed only fitting that the match should provide such rich entertainment.
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image: © tomjoad