When you look back at Radamel Falcao’s six months at Manchester United you realise it is practically synonymous with the season as a whole under Louis van Gaal: a real potential to spark excitement, the occasional moment of magic, impeded by injury here and there, but very often failing to live up to expectations.
Getting hold of Falcao was more than just adding to Man United’s already quite imposing looking roster. It was a statement. Man United had pinched a true superstar, a superstar who had long been linked with moves to Real Madrid and Manchester City. The introduction of Falcao caused the other footballing giants to turn around and take notice.
Above all, this inclusion was set to make United one of the more potent attacking forces in world football. The only thing (seemingly) holding this team back from challenging the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea was their leaky defence, bereft of any experience and leaders.
However, the very reverse has happened. The defence has emerged as problematic but generally solid and the attack has looked downright awful in recent games. Only at United could an attacking force that includes Rooney, van Persie and Falcao be impotent .
It’s a terrible shame seeing somebody who, upon his arrival sparked such excitement amongst supporters, look slowly more dilapidated as his time in Manchester wears on. Falcao’s latest performance against West Ham symbolised a low point in his United career. The Colombian lacked that hunger and desire which had initially propelled him into the world’s spotlight during his time at Atletico Madrid, looking static and off the pace. When a chance finally came his way, he duly scuffed it wide.
It was the polar opposite to what we all witnessed during his time at Atletico (pre-injury) where his talent and desire for scoring goals was largely unparalleled.
“Although he works hard for the team and isn’t bad at linking the play, his main strength is sniffing out chances inside the penalty box. That’s where he comes alive.” BBC’s Andy West on Radamel Falcao
There are two reasons why this might be the case. Firstly, his injury. As somebody who has themselves suffered a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament injury first hand I can sympathise with Falcao to an extent – such a long spell on the sidelines does leave you feeling like you’ve lost a touch of sharpness – but with that being said, there’s no way Falcao has suddenly lost that ruthlessness and power completely. It’s still there. The injury is a factor of course but it by no means symbolises the total demise of an extremely talented striker.
There is another glaring reason behind Falcao’s inability to pull up trees at United. It’s simple. The system he currently plays under will never allow for United fans to witness the Falcao that was in full pomp during his days in Spain, nor will his current strike partner allow him to be as devastating as he was.
Andy West, BBC’s Spanish football writer, discussed with us about how his strike partner allowed for the Colombian to flourish during his time with Atletico.
“He (Falcao) played mainly with Diego Costa, who made the runs wide and into the channels which allowed Falcao to concentrate on what he does best: facing the goal and attacking the penalty area,” Andy told The Peoples Person.
“Although he works hard for the team and isn’t bad at linking the play, his main strength is sniffing out chances inside the penalty box. That’s where he comes alive.”
With Robin van Persie being a striker unwilling to make runs wide and also in behind defences, that opportunity for Falcao to attack the penalty box minimises. The possession based, patient build-up system that van Gaal implements doesn’t benefit Falcao one bit. He has to come deeper searching for the ball, meaning he becomes increasingly distanced from goal.
When speaking to Andy it became clear that the Colombian played under a very different system when he was at his explosive best: “Diego Simeone nearly always lines up with a 4-4-2, with the ‘wide’ midfielders playing quite narrow and a lot of the width therefore coming from attacking full-backs. Again, this meant Falcao could focus on getting into goalscoring positions.”
By creating several avenues to pour forward and create chances, Simeone saw Falcao flourish in attacking positions.
With wing-backs such as Juanfran and Luis supplying numerous crosses per game and inside wingers like Koke and Turan willing to fire balls into the striker it was only natural that Falcao scored a lot of goals. When asked to describe the Falcao he saw at Atletico in three words, Andy labelled him as a ‘penalty box predator’ which makes perfect sense. Diego Simeone’s tactics revolved around making sure that Falcao received the ball in the box as much as possible and as a consequence, Falcao netted 58 times in 62 appearances under Simeone.
This is where van Gaal is going wrong with Falcao. The Dutchman prefers a very different approach where passing through teams and picking the right moment to commit men forward is a common feature. If that fails then plan B ensues (which involves a certain hairy Belgian).
The bottom line is that a van Gaal team is not much of a crossing team (unless Ashley Young gets a game) or a team that fires balls into strikers immediately. As a result of this, Falcao is unable to display his merciless nature in front of goal.
That being said, Andy West was quick to dismiss the possibility of Falcao being an over-hyped talent during his time in La Liga.
He added: “At his best, he was a force of nature. Irresistible. During the 2012/3 season I felt he was the best goalscorer in the world – absolutely deadly and with incredible hunger and determination to score. The big question is how much the long-term knee injury which forced him to miss the World Cup has taken out of him.”
His talent is known to everyone yet he is unable to show it under the current van Gaal system. That may change in the near future, of course, and it needs to if United are to get the best out of him.
We’ll be publishing more pieces looking at Falcao’s situation in-depth this week.