Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Swansea City certainly didn’t when the opportunity presented itself to buy Michu from Rayo Vallecano this summer. If a shrewder piece of business has been done in the Premier League during this transfer window than I have yet to see it.
Once he’d finished rubbing his hands together in delight on making last season’s top scoring midfielder in Spain’s La Liga one of his first signings in England’s Premier League for as little as €2.5m, new manager Michael Laudrup presumably scratched his head in disbelief.
This was a no brainer. How were Swansea the only club to give him serious consideration?
Thinking out-loud before the season began, Laudrup asked: “What would a player who scored 15 goals playing in the Premier League as an offensive midfielder cost? I think it would be maybe double, treble or even four times what we paid for Michu.”
It’s hard to disagree. Harder still after his Premier League debut against QPR. For it’s one thing for a signing to make sense on paper and another entirely for it to work on the pitch. “Incredible” was how Michu described his first competitive appearance in a Swansea shirt.
He announced himself nice and early, pouncing on a loose ball after eight minutes of play and hit a speculative shot beyond QPR’s bungling goalkeeper Robert Green. If there was an element of good fortune about that strike, his second, brought the travelling supporters at Loftus Road to their feet in applause. Watching him make a clever run towards the penalty area on 53 minutes, receive the ball to feet then clip it back across goal and find the top corner left the impression was that the club had a new star.
Any regret at Gylfi Sigurdsson’s decision not to join on a permanent basis from Hoffenheim and instead take his talents to Tottenham was forgotten. Inspired by Michu, Swansea went on to win 5-0 and got their campaign off to the finest of starts. “This is the way I dreamed it would be in this adventure,” he smiled.
It’s hard to begrudge Michu his success. Humble. Determined. Taking inspiration from tennis players Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for their mental strength. He has worked hard from the bottom up to get to where he is today.
To think, until a year ago, he had never played First Division football and, approaching his mid-twenties, looked like he might never get the opportunity to do so in his prime after missing a penalty for Celta Vigo in a promotion play-off against Granada. Contemplating another season in Spain’s second tier, it was then that he got a call from Rayo and made the step up.
Michu flourished. Afforded more space in la Primera and granted better protection from the assaults of defenders than in la Segunda, he proved a revelation. He found a coach in Jose Ramon Sandoval who understood his qualities.
Michu is not a conventional playmaker. In recent years, certainly in Spain, we have come to expect the practitioners of this role to be short and slight of build, like Xavi, Andres Iniesta or David Silva: the list goes on. Michu, by contrast, is tall and rangy. “Orders take longer to reach the feet of a 6’2″ footballer,” he joked to El Pais. With that in mind, he’s had to work on his coordination. “I jump into hoops with my eyes closed, left, right, wherever the coaches say, with my left leg then my right.”
More of a finisher than a creator, Michu distinguished himself for his llegada – the ability to arrive in the penalty area at exactly the right moment and score, just like he did for his second goal against QPR. “Sandoval always said to me: ‘If you’re in the area, you’re easier to mark. If instead you come from deep, it’s more difficult for a player to stop you from scoring. If you come from deep, the defenders can’t follow you out because they have strikers to mark in the box. It’s the element of surprise and it’s where I develop best.”
Michu kept Rayo up and finished the season with 15 league goals: one more than Sevilla’s Alvaro Negredo and only two fewer than Athletic Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente, both of whom went to Euro 2012 [with Chelsea's Fernando Torres] as Spain’s principal strikers.
It begs the question once more: how did Swansea manage to get a player who, with all due respect, should have been on the shortlist of bigger clubs? Credit is owed to Laudrup. A player at Barcelona and Real Madrid. A coach at Getafe and Mallorca. He of course knows the Spanish game, its clubs, its players and its current state very well. “The economic situation in Spanish football is really bad, it’s a difficult moment for them.”
In thrall to the administrators, Rayo had to put their most saleable asset up for sale. And yet, in part, because of the indebtedness of other clubs in La Liga, a serious offer to remain in Spain wasn’t forthcoming. If you knew where to look, as Laudrup did, there was a bargain to be had in a market full of players with the skillset and mentality to fit right in at a club as influenced by tiki-taka as Swansea.
“You have to look at the personality as well,” Laudrup insists. “They are all players who played in smaller teams in Spain, so they are used to playing for smaller clubs but they have the personality to do it. These players don’t come from Barcelona or Real Madrid. They come from smaller clubs who have the same mentality as Swansea.”
Michu corresponds perfectly with what they need. While it’s still early days in this new season, an argument can be made that in terms of the impact he might make relative to their season, Michu deserves consideration ahead of the more glamorous and headline-making signings elsewhere in England, as the best value deal done this summer in the Premier League.