The ‘big man, little man’ combination is a common thread among successful striking partnerships. There’s the ‘big man,’ full of muscular hustle and bustle, aggression and a determination to dominate defenders. Then there’s the ‘little man’. He’s the smooth as silk, extravagantly skilled and elegant technician, whose ability bewitches opponents and fans alike. It’s a fairly apt description of Preben Elkjær and Michael Laudrup, Denmark’s iconic striking partnership of the mid to late 1980s when Danish Dynamite exploded into international football. Like so much about the pairing though, there’s even an iconoclastic element to the ‘big man, little man’ description. In this case, Elkjær, the ‘big man’ stood at 5’ 11”, whilst his ‘little man’ partner was 6’ 1” tall, although he hardly ever headed the ball. It’s not the only non-traditional aspect of a partnership that had so many contrasts – both on and off the field – but, particularly in the World Cup of 1986, for a brief time, took on the mantle as the most dynamic pair of strikers in world football.
Preben Elkjær made his debut for Denmark in June 1976 after a successful period with the U19 team and would become one of the country’s most celebrated footballers. A maverick in so many ways, Elkjær’s playing style belied his relatively small stature; something that was more than made up for by the build of a middleweight boxer and a belligerent temperament. The words power and dynamism have often been used to describe the robust way the striker displayed his talents. Hardly possessing an elegance when in possession, his was a talent that thrived on challenges and defied opponents to take the ball from him despite always appearing to be in less than total control of it. Whenever receiving a pass with his back to goal, instinctively he would turn to challenge his marker. It was however perhaps when receiving possession much deeper that his powers were best revealed. Once turned and running with the ball at the opponent’s defence, he was a pocket battleship with all turrets firing. His searing pace and determination was matched by few but compromised many. Passion and a disregard for things in his way was an attitude maintained both on and off the pitch.
It can be difficult sometimes, to disentangle myths from reality, especially so when the stories seem to fit so well with the public persona of a person, but with Elkjær there was probably little need to embellish the reality. Famous, or infamous, for being a heavy smoker, he also had a reputation – often self-cultivated, and seldom denied – for extremes on the nights before big games. Alcohol and a fondness for the fairer sex were often the staples of such events. An accompanying disregard for blandishments from employers to rethink such perceived excesses were justified by the performances on the pitch. Even after reports reached his manager of less than perfect preparations for games, the performance on the pitch mitigated against any severe reprimand. On one famous occasion, whilst playing in Germany for FC Köln, reports reached the disciplinarian club coach, Hennes Weisweiler, that Elkjær had been in a nightclub enjoying with a bottle of whiskey and a female companion before a big game. When challenged, the player angrily rebuffed the allegation, insisting it was vodka not whiskey, and that there were two women, not one.
In comparison, stories of Michael Laudrup’s off field activities are much more sedate and refined and, as with Elkjær, this was reflected in his play on the pitch. It would be wrong to say that Laudrup lacked passion in his play, but unlike his strike partner, his was deployed in more cerebral, if no less effective, ways. If Preben Elkjær was Rock’n’Roll, Michael Laurdrup was a string quartet. Whilst coaching the Dane at Barcelona, Johann Cruyff summed up this quality succinctly. “When Michael plays,” the Dutch maestro said, luxuriating with purring pleasure. “It is like a dream, a magic illusion and no one in the world comes anywhere near his level.” Praise indeed from so great a player, and certainly reflective of Laudrup’s style of play.
Many others would sing the praises of Michael Laurdrup. His sheer footballing ability shone through and allowed him to play in a variety of positions, as well as the second striker role he occupied when paired with Elkjær at the sharp end of Denmark’s team. One of his key elements was his vision and ability to see shapes opening up in front of him, allowing a geometric poetry to dictate the next pass or dribble. When at Real Madrid, Jorge Valdano would relate how it sometimes seemed that “he has eyes everywhere.” Adding that it used to be a running joke among his team-mates that he possessed an additional eye that no-one else had, and that’s why he could see so much of the play. There was no optical advantage though. It was merely an inbuilt understanding of the game.
Such vision and understanding shaped much of his play and especially so with regard to his dribbling ability. In stark contrast to Elkjær, Laudrup wouldn’t muscle past, or resort to kicking in the afterburners, to beat an opponent for pace. Instead he had the swerving run and ability to change direction, throwing defenders off balance as he drifted past them with apparent nonchalant ease and a sway of the hips.
Whilst playing at Juventus, Laudrup teamed up with Michel Platini and left an indelible impression on the French star. Platini would describe the Dane as being the best player in the world in training and to have as a team-mate, as his ability was only matched by his unselfishness. Indeed, Platini once said, “Michael had everything except for one thing: he wasn’t selfish enough.” As criticisms go, it’s hardly a damning assessment, and perhaps one of the most important elements in making up the partnership that flourished alongside Elkjær. Very much the Ying to his partner’s Yang.
How well did the partnership flourish? To answer that it may be apposite to look at one game in particular. During the 1986 World Cup, Sepp Piontek’s Danish Dynamite team burst onto the world stage and at its head was Elkjær and Laudrup. After defeating Scotland 1-0 thanks to a typical Elkjær strike, bustling past a defender before firing powerfully home to continue the form that had made him top scorer in the qualifiers, Denmark would next face Uruguay. It was a game that, in a microcosm, would illustrate not only the powers of the Danish team at the time, but also highlight the synergy of their two strikers, Preben Elkjær and Michael Laudrup.
Donned in their uber-cool split-half shirts, the Danes, not only looked the part but delivered in stunning fashion. After a 1-1 draw with West Germany, it quickly became clear that the South Americans would be delighted to share the spoils in this game as well and take their chances against Scotland in their last group game. A robust approach that saw Laudrup receive a boot in the face early on, suggested that as well as playing a solid defence, it seemed that the Uruguayans wouldn’t shirk from some physical intimidation. If that was their plan, it would palpably fail.
Just over ten minutes had elapsed when Laudrup extracted his revenge in his own way. In possession just outside of the Uruguay box, he swayed one way then the other, entrancing the defenders, akin to some Oriental snake charmer, before slipping the ball to his left where Elkjær was waiting. Reprising his goal against the Scots, he fired home, low and left-footed. It was his 35th goal for Denmark in just 58 appearances. More would shortly follow. A few minutes later Miguel Bossio was booked for another robust challenge on Laudrup and then completed the set of cards six minutes later, after clattering Frank Arnesen. The Uruguayans were down to ten men. Against a Denmark team in this sort of form, that wasn’t really a great idea.
For the next half-hour or so, the Danes pressed but the second goal didn’t come, despite a couple of valid looking penalty claims. Elkjær netted again, but the goal was ruled out. Approaching the break though, Søren Lerby had possession inside the Uruguay half, then shuffled the ball to his right where Elkjær was waiting. Marking him was Uruguay skipper, Eduardo Mario Acevedo. First stopping then playing the ball forward and scorching after it, in the space of six yards the Dane left the defender in his wake and crossed perfectly to meet up with Lerby’s run. He volleyed home. It was a special goal.
Four minutes later it seemed that an unlikely comeback may be on the cards, as the referee awarded a penalty as generous as the denial of the Danes’ claims had been stingy. Francescoli converted and brought the first-half to a close. There was to be no comeback however. The first half goals had lit the fuse and Laudrup and Elkjær were about to detonate in an explosion of red and white Danish Dynamite.
Seven minutes after the restart, a poor clearance fell to Lerby, who squared to Laudrup. Some 25 yards from goal and with the massed ranks of the defence in front of him though, there seemed little danger. Dribbling forward though, he simply drifted past three defenders, none of who could even register a meaningful challenge, dummied the goalkeeper and rolled the ball into the net. It was signature goal. Commentating for ITV, and speaking for so many watching, John Helms declared, “The boy’s a genius!” Playing against ten men and 3-1 up. It was show time.
Fifteen minutes later, with the Danes camped outside the Uruguay area playing keep ball, another Laudrup burst took him past a defender and clear on goal. Goalkeeper Fernando Álvez half-blocked. The ball deflected into the air, and then trickled towards goal. As Álvez chased back to retrieve, it quickly became a race between him and Elkjær as to who would get there first. It was hardly a contest as the jet-heeled Dance made it 4-1.
Laudrup had his signature goal, now he would feed his partner for Elkjær to take centre stage. A Uruguay attack broke down and the Danes swiftly moved the ball forward. Laudrup had possession and saw his partner launch into his stride. Playing the ball forward, he found Elkjær in yards of space, and clear of any defensive cover. Scorching through the gears, the striker hammered clear, rounded Álvez and notched his hat-trick. If ever there was a goal that epitomised the dovetailing qualities of the two players that was it. Laudrup’s vision, selflessness and passing ability had set Elkjær in motion. From there it was pace, power and precision to finish.
There was another goal to come when a ball found the marauding Elkjær on the right flank, powering forwards he simply outgunned the defenders before squaring to substitute Jesper Olsen, who had come on for Laudrup – or else surely it would have been him there to receive and score – to calmly stroke home.
Yes, of course it was only one game, and with the Uruguayans down to ten men for much of the game, some would say they were easy prey for any number of teams. The beauty of this game in the context of celebrating the partnership of Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjær though isn’t in the sound beating they handed out, it is in the way it illustrates not only the symbiotic qualities of the pair, but also how effective the combination was. There were goals of poetic beauty, and raw power, illustrating exquisite understanding between the two, but across the six goals, there wasn’t a single one when one or the other wasn’t involved – and all three of Elkjær’s strikes were crafted by his partner. This game wasn’t the sum of the ability of the partnership, it was merely a summary of how the little big man and the big little man, together, were both giants of the game.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Duology’ series on ‘These Football Times’ website).