x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

'Ugly duckling' Michu soaring as a Swansea City player

The attacking midfielder is flying in South Wales and his goals may help him achieve his aim of a Spain call-up, writes Ian Hawkey.

Michu has scored 12 goals in his first 16 Premier League games for Swansea. Richard Heathcote / Getty Images
Michu has scored 12 goals in his first 16 Premier League games for Swansea. Richard Heathcote / Getty Images

Towards the end of September, the leading marksman in the English Premier League eased the tall, lean frame of his body into a sofa in the sunroom of a gymnasium in Neath, South Wales and came up with an instant answer to the question of how long he expected his own sunshine moment to last.

"Being top-scorer is just a curiosity, an anecdote as far I am concerned," says Miguel Perez Cuesta, more commonly known as Michu. "In a league like this, where you have the likes of Robin van Persie at Manchester United, it is those sorts of players who end up as leading goal scorer."

At the time, Michu had six goals in half a dozen matches for his new club Swansea City, five in five in the new league he had joined for a transfer fee of around £2 million (Dh11.8m) from Rayo Vallecano, the third of the Spanish clubs he had represented in a career that, until July, had never taken him outside his native country and had included only one season in the Spanish top flight.

His autumn goal-scoring form, he suggested, was bound to drop to something closer to a level you would expect from a novice to English football, from a footballer who would never classify himself as an out-and-out striker; it would inevitably reduce to something closer to the yield you would anticipate from a player at a club who, in only their second season in the Premier League, sets their initial target for the campaign as avoiding a return to the Championship.

Yet here we are in the second half of December, and the "anecdote" is becoming a rather lengthy one.

Michu went into this weekend still the Premier League's leading goalscorer, with 12 from 16 games. He will spearhead the Swansea attack against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane today on the back of five goals in his last three league outings.

That run of form, and the burst of early-season goals that ushered him to the attention of the rest of English football, cannot be explained away entirely by the novelty factor, by the argument that opponents have been ambushed by a player little known until four months ago outside Spain's Primera Liga, or by the cleverness of Swansea in utilising him most effectively in the possession-based game of their new manager, Michael Laudrup.

Certainly, Michu carried the confidence of a good season with Rayo - 15 goals in the Primera Liga in 2011/12 for an underdog side - with him to Wales. He also felt immediately the nature of English football offered him the kind of space he likes to work in.

"I think generally Spanish football can be more tight tactically. Here I found there was more room between the lines of defence and midfield," he tells The National.

That is the area of the pitch where he feels most comfortable, dropping off a more advanced striker, ideally, and ghosting into unmarked areas. He has in his arsenal accuracy and power from long distance, as his first Swansea goal of the season, a low, left-foot drive from more than 25-metres against Queens Park Rangers, testified. He also has the height to meet a cross powerfully, the long stride to escape a pursuing defender.

This package of qualities was recognised by scouts in Asturia, in the north of Spain, when Michu was a teenager, growing up at Real Oviedo, then a club declining in status. But they were his club, and he recalls with genuine heart-break his boyhood sensations watching Oviedo suffer the first of a sequence of relegations - "I felt terrible" - and he would later refuse the chance of top-flight football with their fierce local rivals, Sporting Gijon: "I couldn't, as an Oviedo fan, be truly comfortable going there."

Instead he built a senior career with Celta Vigo in the second tier of Spanish football. Though effective and respected, he was never prolific at that level as a marksman. When he became available in 2011, his contract there having expired, at the age of 25, there was no great stampede of interested top-flight clubs. He joined one with one of the lowest budgets and a recent history of severe financial difficulties, Rayo.

His career took off. He describes the "strong spirit" at Rayo, where many players had gone months without salary because of the club's debts. "When you are among colleagues who literally don't know how they will pay the bills each month, you see strong characters develop," Michu says.

"The situation had improved there economically by the time I arrived, but a lot of players had suffered."

Which means Michu takes a special perspective on the observation, now being made on a weekly basis in the English - and indeed Welsh - media that his transfer represents the coup of the season in the Premier League.

In a world where Fernando Torres moves for £50m, a fee of barely four per cent of that for a player who scores more than three times as frequently for Swansea as Torres does for Chelsea, provokes awe. Buy cheap in the Premier League seemed a precious fortune in suburban Madrid.

"For Rayo," Michu points out, "that was a great sum of money which would help them to get through the next season."

It was also sum nobody in Spain offered for Michu last summer. His achievements at unfashionable Rayo had not put him in the orbit of Real Madrid or Barcelona, the monied giants, and there is so little liquidity among the rest that Laudrup, who knows Spanish football well, sensed he could swoop for his bargain buy.

Michu's reputation at home has certainly gained from his headline-making feats in England. He is not quite the ugly duckling now soaring as a Swan, but certainly viewed as a late developer now to be taken very seriously. The head coach of Spain's European championship and World Cup holders, Vicente del Bosque, regularly fields questions about Michu's case for a call-up to a national squad which, though overcrowded with attacking midfielders of the highest calibre, still has the inconsistent Torres among its most senior strikers.

A cap for Spain still eludes Michu, though he aspires to it. "It is every player's dream," he says. "I am pleased I am getting noticed."

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