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“La Noche De Michael Laudrup” — A Case Study On How We Remember Real Madrid History

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Laudrup was brilliant in moments, but he was also absent in the first half and was no better than some of his other teammates.

UEFA Champions League Soccer - Real Madrid v Juventus Photo by Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images

Our recent podcast on Raúl’s debut led to a discussion about Michael Laudrup, where, despite his inconsistent performance, he impressed with his technical quality and dribbling ability.

His aesthetically divine elegance and surprising burst of acceleration piqued my interest in him and I was delighted to learn that Real Madrid TV would broadcast a 1996 La Liga match billed as “La Noche de Michael Laudrup” (translation: “The Night of Michael Laudrup” or “Michael Laudrup’s Night”).

Though I ended up missing it, I found a replay and watched Real Madrid thrash Athletic Bilbao 5-0, struck by how much of the game was not defined by its supposed marquee player.

Real Madrid’s lineup vs. Athletic Bilbao on January 24th, 1996.

Real Madrid lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, with manager Arsenio Iglesias making some interesting selections. Quique Sánchez Flores, an offensive right back, moved up to the wing and Luis Enrique (yes, the future Barcelona manager), a midfielder, slotted in at left back — a common experiment until Roberto Carlos arrived. Less odd, but still noteworthy, changes, saw Laudrup move to the wide position while Fernando Hierro stepped up into midfield — something he did many times in his illustrious career.

The game tilted in Madrid’s favor in the first half against a poor Athletic Bilbao team (they finished 15th in the league), thanks, partially, to the Basque side’s own mistakes.

A poor pass in midfield led to a 1v1 that Raúl couldn’t convert, before the Athletic goalkeeper indirectly assisted Zamorano’s long distance shot that flew over the bar.

Real Madrid’s first real chance emerging from their own initiation came from Fernando Redondo’s dribbling brilliance.

He scythed through Athletic’s midfield and set-up a combination with Raúl that penetrated the opposition box and resulted in an easy tap-in for Iván Zamorano.

In fact, the match may as well have been named “La Noche de Fernando Redondo” for how he carried Madrid’s offensive play. Redondo’s press resistance, ball carrying, and willingness to involve others in rondo-like sequences were the sole form of Madrid’s creation for most of the first half. He was also ever-present against the ball, using his positioning to pick up loose balls and re-circulate possession.

Funnily, enough, Laudrup’s most noteworthy moment in the initial forty-five minutes arrived in the form of a couple of one-twos with Redondo.

Otherwise, Laudrup floated in and out of proceedings, popping up with unsuccessful passes here and there.

Then, close to the half hour mark, it looked like Laudrup was about to snap out of it; he received a header and flicked it with the back of his heel to Raúl, before swiveling and making a run beyond the last line. He received a perfect return pass and, with the goal gaping in front of him, sent his shot clean over the bar.

It was an incredible miss that preceded a Raúl shot that hit the woodwork and a massive Athletic chance.

The mistake seemed to wake up something inside of Laudrup, though, and the beginning of the second half saw more of his quality as Redondo began to fade.

However, the true defining moment came when Athletic defender Iñigo Larrainzar picked up a second yellow for illegally stopping Zamorano on the counter-attack.

Athletic bravely held their mid-block and tried to attack, but the man advantage soon told, with Laudrup getting on the scoresheet to make it 2-0.

It was a gorgeous move, with Redondo finding Zamorano, who was ready to play a wall pass into the onrushing Hierro. Raúl stationed himself in the right halfspace and held onto Hierro’s pass before he could feed the run of Laudrup, who had taken it upon himself to roam across the pitch more in the second half. The only problem — the goal was clearly offside, though the linesman said it was good, anyway.

In spite of its dubious nature, Laudrup’s confidence swelled and, against an undermanned opposition, the wizard began to make his mark. In the space of twenty minutes, he created a 1v1 for Zamorano with the goalkeeper, assisted Raúl for the third goal on a neat through ball, and scored a cool solo effort to wipe out any chance of a comeback.

Some of the errors that had plagued him in the first half were still present, complicating the picture a little — it’s almost as if he flipped a switch and suddenly became untouchable on those three plays and those three plays only.

But, those are the only three plays we remember twenty-four years on, because the human brain works that way. Our memory is not like that of a computer’s — we don’t record every second of every day with unnerving accuracy, all, while, having it stored in an easily retrievable and reliable file. Our minds build memories through neural pathways that seek to discard irrelevant information in favor of keeping ones that hold significance to us, whether that be for basic survival or for emotional resonance. Furthermore, even the memories we think we remember well degrade over time, as we recall things differently on each occasion and slowly add events that didn’t exist.

“La Noche de Michael Laudrup” is a prime example of that. A game that is supposed to represent the pinnacle of his quality in a Real Madrid shirt was a performance of errors punctuated by moments of excellence. But, Madridistas don’t remember the missed passes, the red card that shifted the balance of power, or the fact that Laudrup’s first goal was offside — they remember the beauty of Laudrup’s touches and feints more than two decades on because it stirred powerful emotions within them.

There is nothing objectively wrong with this and it is not a moral critique to note that people remember things in flawed ways — it’s a statement of fact about human nature. But, it does become, somewhat, problematic when trying to approach the game from an analytical perspective and honor Real Madrid history accurately. None of this is to say that Laudrup is, actually, a massively overrated player who never performed that well — this is just one game. In all likelihood, Laudrup is assessed correctly as one of the best players of his time and one of the highest peak players to have ever featured at the Bernabéu.

Nevertheless, there are other examples where time has created a new outlook on players who were not as we currently remember them to be. Kiyan spent some minutes on a previous podcast talking about how Guti was wildly inconsistent even though he’s, now, remembered solely for his audacious passes. This has, consequently, led to an inflation in his status among the all-time Real Madrid greats.

In the context of this match, our remembrance of Real Madrid’s 5-0 victory as the Laudrup game makes us forget Redondo’s ginormous first half performance and, equally importantly, how saucy young Raúl was.

Raúl’s lengthy career at Real Madrid has produced many memories of him, with his goalscoring record creating a narrative that centers voluminous and lethal goal scoring. While the Merengues icon certainly had great seasons in front of goal, it would shock some to correctly state that his playing style was more akin to that of Karim Benzema’s than that of a classic, goal-oriented nine. Teenage Raúl and young Karim fancied themselves as dribblers, before showing off a level of off-ball movement and link-up play that would make both of them some of the best second strikers in history.

Nevertheless, even Raúl was imperfect on the day — he didn’t always retain possession well between the lines and missed two good chances that could’ve put Madrid in front, earlier. Instead, Athletic Bilbao 0-5 Real Madrid was the story of a team who took advantage of a second yellow card and gave their fans some moments to remember in a difficult season (Real Madrid finished 6th in La Liga); though it appears that we haven’t remembered those moments that well, after all.