Our time with Michael Laudrup, Swansea’s Don Draper

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It was easy to believe in Michael Laudrup. Between a legendary playing career, Jon Hamm’s looks, and a philosophy that melts the heart of any ‘play the right way’ aestheticist, it’s no wonder the man was being linked with so many big job openings last summer. It didn’t hurt that his latest team, Swansea City, had just won silverware in England, but even if the Swans hadn’t claimed the League Cup, Laudrup’s mystique would have still created links to Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid. After all, who doesn’t want to hire Don Draper?

As we’ve found out over Mad Men’s last eight years, perfect hair, a bone-cutting jaw, and the charisma to captivate beyond explanations leads to false belief. Now, with Swans chairman Huw Jenkins forced to call time on his Don, Swansea fans are left wondering what will become of their team now that their Draper has been shown the door.

Perhaps that’s too dramatic. Swansea of all teams is used to changing coaches. But as Jenkins pointed out in his announcement, this is the first time in a decade Swans have had to dismiss a boss. Before Laudrup, Brendan Rodgers had brought the Welsh team into the Premier League, using the club as a springboard to Anfield. Prior to him, Paolo Sousa guided the Swans before taking off for Leicester City, and before that, Roberto Martínez made his managerial name by taking Swansea into the second tier. All the while, Swansea maintained an approach that played progressive in addition to winning soccer. All the while, Swansea kept moving up the English ladder.

Laudrup seemed like a perfect fit – somebody whose reputation could match the ambition of a club that had established itself in the first division. Denmark’s greatest player ever — somebody who starred for all of Juventus, Barcelona, and Real Madrid — Laudrup would add a level of panache that could elevate Swans beyond Rodgers’ and Martínez’s success. For a club that had never won a major title, drawing a man of Laudrup’s mystique to the Liberty Stadium was a relative coup.

That coup produced immediate results. He was able to leverage his experience in La Liga, bring in Michu, and win silverware in his first year. If Laudrup was Swansea’s Don Draper, then 2012-13 was his carousel:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoKtk8L77-U width=440 align=center]

Silverware makes you believe, so in the same way we didn’t worry about the empty bottles coming out of Don’s office, it was easy to overlook Laudrup’s problems. A murky past that didn’t add up to his present plagued Don as much as Michael, only where Draper never talked about Dick Whitman or Korea, nobody mentioned Laudrup’s one-season stints at Getafe, Spartak Moscow, or Mallorca. Where Don Draper disappeared to Southern California to hit on Anna’s niece, Laudrup let Swansea regress after claiming the League Cup. Distracted, intoxicated by his Draper-ness, Don lost his edge, just as winning a trophy make Laudrup forget.

Swansea are supposed to be the underdogs. They’re supposed to be Welsh upstarts. They’re supposed to be the feel good story that appeals to the neutral’s hearts. They’re not supposed to be resting on laurels, deserting Pete Campbell to lounge in the California desert. They’re supposed to be chasing Dow Chemical.

On Tuesday, our perceptions finally caught up to reality. Laudrup ceased being the hero. Unable to find new solutions, and with rumors from behind the scenes describing tensions that forced Jenkins’ hand, Swansea could no longer ignore the obvious. The club is two points from relegation. They’ve gone from playing beautiful, flowing soccer to holding the ball with little product. The man they were paying to help them build beyond the mire was guiding them back into it. It was time to move on.

For some, today’s move was a surprise. Had Laudrup been a little less Draper, it wouldn’t have been. It’s been over a season since Swansea played to the standard Laudrup inherited. He pushed the club to its greatest glory, but he was also on the brink of leading them to a debilitating failure. Sterling Cooper  had to move on from their Jaguar high, just as Swansea had to move on from the League Cup. At some point, the lesson’s so clear it’s painful: Not even Don Draper can avoid getting results.

The same year Mad Men debuted (2007), we started to see the cracks in Laudrup. Until then, the then-43-year-old was perfect, building on near rarefied playing success with four successful seasons at Brønbry. But he saw himself as too big for Getafe, never adapted to Moscow, and resigned rather than be troubled at Mallorca. Even before Swansea, he’d become a drifter, his new career an ill fit for an icon.

Swansea were given no choice but to move on. In the process, we’ve come to see a new Michael Laudrup. This wasn’t a coach building toward a place at a bigger club. This was somebody holding on in the face of failure, and as much as we want him to succeed, we’re forced to see him as flawed.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8i5SpIxx_A4]

Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

Photo by Oscar J. Barroso / AFP7 / Europa Press Sports via Getty Images
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MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

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Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

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Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong

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Jose Mourinho seems to be quite happy that the Premier League will implement its first-ever winter break next month, allowing players a bit of rest and recovery time during a marathon campaign, but says its timing makes the break almost worthless for clubs competing in European competitions.

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The next four weeks will play out as follows for Tottenham Hotspur: FA Cup against Southampton this weekend; PL fixture against Manchester City next weekend; the following weekend off which results in two weeks without a game; PL fixture against Aston Villa the following weekend; Champions League first leg against RB Leipzig three days later.

In Mourinho’s perfect world, that first round of PL fixtures following the break would be held a week earlier, leaving the seven English clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with a week and a half between games before setting out once again to chase European glory. Instead, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea will all have a quick turnaround from PL action to UCL competition — quotes from the Guardian:

“It is what it is. I’m not happy that the break comes in the wrong moment. The break should be before the Champions League and, in the end, before the Champions League we don’t have the break. We have to play Aston Villa on the Sunday, playing [RB Leipzig three] days later. So we don’t really care about the break, honestly.”

Mourinho’s point is a solid one: if the winter break is going to exist — and it should — then why shouldn’t its benefits be maximized? Non-European sides — typically those with smaller squads — would still have the full two weeks between games, while those in Europe are able to better leverage their slightly larger squads with only 10 or 11 days between games — still a lengthy break relative to the rest of the season.

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It’s only the first year of the winter break in the PL, so perhaps hopefully they’ll receive Mourinho’s criticism — and that of any other managers — constructively.

Serie A: AC Milan extends unbeaten run since Zlatan’s arrival

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BRESCIA, Italy (AP) Ante Rebic scored his third goal in two matches, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb and AC Milan won 1-0 at relegation-threatened Brescia on Friday to climb into the Europa League places in Serie A.

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Rebic, who scored twice in a win over Udinese last weekend, pounced on a loose ball directly in front of the goal following a cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.

Since Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan over the holiday break, Milan is unbeaten with four wins and a draw across all competitions.

Donnarumma produced several difficult saves to deny Dimitri Bisoli and Ernesto Torregrossa.

Also, Milan fullback Theo Hernandez hit the crossbar in the closing minutes.

The Rossoneri moved up to sixth place, four points behind fifth-place Atalanta.

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“Our goal is to qualify for Europe,” Donnarumma said. “We’ve got to continue like this and not rest for a moment. There’s another big Italian Cup match coming up with Torino midweek and we want to reach the semifinals.

“We’ll take it one game at a time and try to keep this momentum going.”

Brescia was without Mario Balotelli, who was suspended for two matches after protesting a booking last weekend that ended up with the striker being sent off.

Brescia remained one point above last-place Genoa.

FA Cup: Sheffield Wednesday into 5th round; Derby headed for replay

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Sheffield Wednesday became the first club to reach the fifth round of the 2019-20 FA Cup by beating Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Friday.

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The Owls took a 1-0 lead into halftime after Morgan Fox squeezed his shot past the goalkeeper from a tight angle, and Sam Winnall put the EFL Championship side 2-0 up by slotting the ball home just before full-time. QPR pulled a goal back through Nahki Wells just moments later, but it wasn’t enough and the game finished 2-1.

It’s the second time in three seasons that Wednesday has reached the fifth round after doing so just twice in their previous 17 seasons.

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Elsewhere, fellow Championship side Derby County, featuring Wayne Rooney who played all 90 minutes, couldn’t see off League Two side Northampton Town and will be forced into the dreaded replay after struggling to a scoreless draw away from home.

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.