As Swansea prepare to take on Liverpool, Michael Cox looks at how the Michu/Wilfried Bony partnership is settling in at the Liberty Stadium.
While Michael Laudrup enjoyed a hugely successful debut campaign as Swansea City coach last season, the peculiar subtext was that he never seemed entirely sure of his best starting XI.
The major success story was unquestionably Spanish forward Michu – with 22 goals in 43 matches, for a cost of just £2m, he was certainly the signing of the season.
But curiously, Michu was also part of the reason Laudrup could never quite decide upon his best side. Originally, Swansea had been looking to replace Gylfi Sigurdsson in the role behind the main striker – but Michu was given the number nine shirt, and ended up playing an equal amount of games upfront as he did in his favoured withdrawn role.
When Laudrup attempted to play Michu as the number ten, however, he found he had two problems. First, he lacked a reliable goalscorer upfront – with Danny Graham not favoured and then sold to Sunderland, Luke Moore no more than a decent back-up, and loanee Itay Shechter only managing one goal and appearing completely out of his depth. Second, Laudrup had talented midfielders he didn’t want sitting on the bench. Three excellent central midfielders – Leon Britton, Jonathan De Guzman and Ki Sung-Yeug – plus a trio of direct attacking players – Pablo Hernandez, Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge – were being forced to rotate, at the expense of a misfiring forward. It soon became obvious that playing Michu upfront was the best option.
For this season, however, Michu is set to revert to his favoured number ten position – and now, Swansea have an excellent centre-forward to make that possible. Wilfried Bony, a £12m signing from Vitesse, hit 31 goals in 30 games in last year’s Eredvisie, and has started this season with four goals in four matches in the equivalent of five complete matches in all competitions.
On paper, the relationship works perfectly. Bony is all about raw speed, and works the channels nicely, pushing the opposition defence back and creating space between the lines for Michu to work in. There were early signs of their good relationship when they linked up seamlessly in the Europa League thrashing of Malmo in early August, but Swansea’s most recent Premier League fixture – a 2-0 win over West Brom – was the first time they’d started together in domestic football.
The separation in their roles is obvious. Against West Brom, Michu received twice as many passes as Bony, and was happy to drop into his own half to collect short balls from midfield. Bony, on the other hand, concentrated his work against the opposition’s backline, and only received passes in his own half when working the channels:
There was also evidence of a direct relationship between the duo – Michu most frequently received the ball from Bony, and vice-versa. In total, they combined directly 14 times throughout the contest, which is a particularly high number for a strike partnership:
That compares extremely favourably when looking at other strike partnerships – Steven Fletcher and Danny Graham’s relationship at Sunderland last season, for example, was notoriously bad for direct link-ups:
The one area Laudrup will be keen to see improvement in, somewhat surprisingly, is their shooting. Against West Brom, winger Pablo Hernandez was Swansea’s most prolific shooter with four attempts. He grabbed one goal, while left-back Ben Davies hit the opener. Michu and Bony had just one attempt apiece, both from outside the penalty box.
Still, considering both players’ scoring records last season, there’s no reason the goals shouldn’t follow soon. In the age of one-striker formations and widespread squad rotation, reliable partnerships upfront are becoming increasingly rare – but this one has the makings of a great double act.