“No, a footballer doesn’t control his destiny. Sometimes I laugh when people ask me why I didn’t go to this place or why I didn’t stay where I was, like a footballer can decide where he works. So I ask the journalists, “Why don’t you work for CNN or ESPN?” It’s the same in football. It’s very rare that you have a choice of where you’re going on. I’ve lived through situations, where I couldn’t live where I wanted, many times. I want to go to one place and in the end, I have to go to the other side.”
– Radamel Falcao, 25th December,2 015 in an interview to the Libero
It wouldn’t be over-presumptuous to say that Manchester United wasn’t Radamel Falcao’s idea of a dream move this past summer. Come August, and his eyes had seemed fixed in a misty gaze upon the alluring arms of the Bernabeu. With the unkinder side of 30 now hovering dangerously, he seemed to sense that it might be the last chance to have his name adorn the famous Madrid whites. And yet even he must’ve known that it was a long shot to expect the lottery, that is the modern transfer market, to throw up his future as a Madridista.
There were complex third-party ownership and agency issues involved, which brought in absurd numbers into the picture. Add to that a recent return from a 6-month absence from the game. Madrid had already splurged cash to capture their latest World Cup hero in the form of a different Colombian, the prodigious 23-year-old James Rodriguez. Besides, it had always seemed unlikely that the well-oiled, immaculate footballing machine of Madrid would give anything but a passing glance at something less than pristine and flawless. And as the hours to transfer deadline ticked down, Falcao seemed a desperate man, looking for a desperate escape from Monaco’s sinking ship. He needed a desperate suitor to match, and there came none more desperate in the market at the time than Manchester United. As dusk gave way to dawn, every vehicle within 100 miles of Carrington was being reported as ‘the one’. And as the smoke finally settled, El Tigre began the September of 2014 holding aloft not the white of Madrid, but the red of Manchester.
While the financial details of the deal ranged in absurdity depending on the sources you trust, they are unanimously absurd anyway. A one-year loan deal of £6 million, with an option to sign permanently for £43.5 million and at astounding wages of reportedly £265,000 weekly (as per BBC). However, while unusual, the financial details soon became common knowledge. However, what remained ambiguous many hours beyond the close of the transfer window, was the footballing reasons behind the move.
If conspiracy theorists are to be believed, there are no footballing reasons, only business ones. The Glazers are apparently in hunt of new owners for the club and are preparing the ‘Gaal-acticos’ in a bid to make the club seem more lucrative and their retirement packages more comfortable. However, let us hope for the sake of the club, the game and indeed common sense, that the claims are as false as they seem bizarre. It is not so far-fetched, in fact, that the astute tactician Van Gaal took on the player for his value addition to the squad.
As he stated in pre-season, Van Gaal found Rooney better suited in the midfield. Welbeck was clearly deemed not good enough and passed on to rivals Arsenal. James Wilson, though very promising, was barely eligible to vote yet. Van Persie was just off a tiring World Cup campaign with an inconsistent, injury-marred season behind him. If United could groom Falcao back to his best, he could be another alchemistic signing in the mould of Cantona and Van Persie, if a heftily costlier one. His astonishing record of 153 goals in 197 competitive games since moving to Europe spoke for itself. In the least, he could propel United back to the Champions League before moving on to newer pastures. If he came back to his best, that is.
The United faithful have been in relentless search of signs to prove that he is indeed the Falcao that legends speak of. He has finally recovered from major and minor niggles and has had a decent run of games, capped off by a crucial equalizer at Stoke. With the season past the half-way mark, the time seems apt to take a step back and see how far the Colombian has come in his rehabilitation programme. This articles aims to study the numbers from his United tenure so far (and particularly the Tottenham and Stoke games) and compare them against his career stats over the past three seasons and a bit till joining the club (with particular focus on the outstanding 2012-13 season at Atlético, his most productive at 28 league goals). Is Radamel Falcao nearing the striker defenders worldwide have known to fear?
Falcao is, in every way, a pure No. 9 by preference. He is strong on both feet and monstrous in the air, inspite of a 5’10” frame. Above all, his poaching abilities have been key to his style of play. Of his 63 club goals in 88 games over the last three seasons, 57 have come from inside the box. Even his 3 goals this season have all come from within 7 yards. However, pure poachers rarely find place in Van Gaal’s system. He prefers players who can act as focal points of attacks and be more involved in the build up as well, as stated by him on multiple occasions. He reiterated early in the season how he didn’t care how upset Falcao was having to warm the bench. That’s where he would stay till he managed to adapt to his philosophy. It is difficult for a player to change the very basis of his play that he has thrived upon, at 28 years of age. But it isn’t as if Falcao has a choice any more. With Van Gaal at the helm, it is either his way or the highway. However, Falcao has now started 4 games in a row, suggesting that he’s finally winning Van Gaal’s faith and beginning to play the way Van Gaal expects him to. The question is, what is that ‘way’?
Of the two-man strikeforce, his role is clearly a deeper one, being asked to hold up the ball and use his body strength to hold off the opposition, and be an integral part of the construction of the attack. While Van Persie’s positioning was primarily involved up front, Falcao’s role was more scattered dropping deeper and following the play. Against Tottenham, Falcao had 47 touches to Van Persie’s 28. Against Stoke, Van Persie had 16 touches across 90 minutes. Falcao had 36 in his 64 minutes. Falcao’s heat maps from the Tottenham and Spurs games are below:
To understand how much in contrast this is to his regular style of play, below is the heat map from his game for Atlético Madrid against Atletico Bilbao on 27th August, 2012 where he notched a hat-trick, days before his famous hat-trick against Chelsea in the European Super Cup. He was clearly in one of the productive and comfortable phases of his career.
Falcao barely stepped into his own half, and spent most of his time in and around the six-yard box.
If there is any further evidence required to prove the extent of variation to his role, and the demands of him thereof, there are plenty of numbers screaming to be heard.
Since moving to Europe, in 7386 minutes of league football across 84 starts in 3 seasons, Falcao had garnered a total of 4 assists before his move. He already has 3 for United in 604 minutes across just 7 starts. His pass success rate has gone up from an average of 82% in that period to 86% since joining the club. In the game against Aston Villa, he created 4 chances, the most that week by any player in the Premier League. His key passes per 90 mins have nearly doubled from 0.88 to 1.5. Coming from a man who has made his career on poaching goals, these are very impressive numbers. They indicate not just how hard he is physically working to find a place in the team, but also how he is tactically evolving into the player Van Gaal demands, a much sterner test.
His deeper role has also demanded of him to contribute more defensively. And he hasn’t shied from his responsibilities. His interceptions per 90 minutes have doubled from 0.3 interceptions to 0.75. For comparison, Juan Mata playing deeper has only 0.71 interceptions every 90 mins. Falcao has had 3 interceptions over the last 2 games alone, while he had a total of 5 in the entire 2012/13 season. He has significantly spruced up the defensive side of his game.
The increased defensive contribution hasn’t come without eating a bit into his direct goal-scoring threat. His shots per goal has fallen from 2.95/90 mins to 2.38/90, and from 0.95 to 0.74 inside the box. The fall is not worrisome though considering it comes in exchange for the outstanding, if not as conspicuous, improvement in his overall game. In fact, while the goals have decreased, the goal contributions (goals+assists) have not. 3 goals and 3 assists in 7 starts is no mean feat. His contribution strike rate of 100.66 minutes/contribution this season is, in fact, strikingly similar to the 100.44 mins/contribution of his 2012/13 season. Besides, in a team still looking for its best combination and finding its groove, the quality of service hasn’t even been of the consistent quality he’s grown used to. The only worrisome area comes in his obvious lack of match sharpness.
Coming back from a surgery, it was to be expected that Falcao would take time to reach match sharpness. And it’s apparent that the recovery is taking slightly longer than United fans and management would’ve hoped. One of his strongest areas has always been his aerial ability. Over the past 3 league seasons, he got into 4.65 aerial tackles a game, which often come in tight, back-to-goal spaces. Of this he won a monstrous 40%. That has come down to a measly 18% of the 4.02 aerial duels per 90 mins he’s faced this season. Using the same periods for comparison, his conversion ratio for shots to goals has come down from 20.5% to 14.3%.
However, the main area of concern is his hold-up play. Playing as the second striker, the importance of his hold-up play cannot be overstated, particularly in tough away games where United has struggled the most. His average unsuccessful touches and times dispossessed per 90 mins were at 2.54 and 2.76 respectively. These have gone up strongly to 2.83 and 3.28 respectively. He was dispossessed 7 times and had 4 unsuccessful touches in just 64 minutes against Stoke (Van Persie had just one of each in the whole game). It was no wonder he was substituted, in spite of the mixture of bewilderment and disappointment on his face. Against Tottenham too, he was dispossessed a whole 9 times and had 4 unsuccessful touches. The increase in mistakes is disproportionately high even taking into account his increased involvement and increased number of touches per 90 minutes.
These are the worrying numbers. These are poor by any standards, not just Falcao’s. It speaks of a weakness in the very areas Van Gaal wants Falcao to step up. These numbers speak of a player still feeling new to his unfamilar role and new surroundings, low on match intensity and sharpness. And while he has had a gruelling fortnight of games, these numbers seem to be only worsening rather than improving. These numbers could very soon translate into a dip in form and performance. It may be a harsh analysis of the first 600-odd minutes of a player back after a 6-month absence and at a new club. But time is the least friendly of Falcao’s companions right now. An optimist would say that it’s only a matter of time before it all falls in place for the Colombian, and supplements his defensive contributions, and his goals and assists. A pessimist might, on the other hand, argue it’s only a matter of time before it all falls apart and the goals and assists stop covering up the flaws. Either way, it’s not just goals and assists Van Gaal wants of Falcao. Falcao needs to step up. And he needs to do it fast.
When the loan-out of Javier Hernandez was followed up with the loan-in of Falcao, many felt that United were looking for an upgrade on the Mexican to partner Van Persie. A more lethal poacher, a more complete finisher, Chicharito 2.0. The thinking behind this line of deduction was obvious. From the start of his European journey, Falcao has thrived as the main man in every team, the one-pointed destination of all attacking moves to end in, carrying the goal-scoring burden of the team to astonishing success. He started every game with the one-pointed focus of putting the ball in the back of the net, and more often than not, he succeeded. However, that is not the Falcao that United need at the moment or the one Van Gaal wants.
Van Gaal’s Dutch school of philosophy demands more complete players, with the attacking and defensive burden of the team spread throughout the eleven, rather than confined to pockets. There are several players in the United squad who are incredible goal-scorers in their own right – Rooney, Van Persie, Mata, and even the odd contribution from the likes of Herrera, Di Maria and Fellaini. El Tigre is still expected to score his fair share of goals for sure. But the realistic target is probably closer to 20 rather than the 30 that has become his norm. Anything additional is bonus, and must not come at the cost of his larger role. The goal-scoring burden on Falcao is relatively eased. And in return Falcao must contribute more comprehensively to the team’s performance, in attack, in build-up and defensively as well.
The signs are that he is moving well in that direction, but not without impediments. His goal contribution seems intact, and his defensive contribution is improving. As he settles better into the team, grows in confidence and gains match sharpness, the goal contributions should improve even further. His understanding with Van Persie too has shown marked improvement. In probably United’s best attacking half of the season in the first 45 against Tottenham, the two were seen time and again stretching the defence apart with co-ordinated runs rather than getting in each other’s way as they used to. And while maintaining the attacking threat, his numbers indicate a conspicuous improvement in his defensive contribution to the game as well. His main weakness, however, lies in his seeming inability yet to pick up his hold-up play while playing deeper in the park and a lack of match sharpness. Van Gaal did seem more than willing to give Van Persie time early in the season to settle back in. Falcao too should get the benefit of a settling-in period to move up to top gear.
Come June 2015, Louis Van Gaal will have a move of huge repercussions to both club and player to decide upon. £43.5 million seems audacious money for any 29-year-old, even in today’s inflated market. But United have not been shy of late, and improved TV rights and kit sponsorship deals are only two among a plethora of resources at their demand. The final word might belong to Van Gaal. And chances are he will be basing his decision not on how far Falcao has come to being the player he once was, but instead on how far he has become the player Van Gaal wants him to be. He must keep up his goal contribution of old on one side, continue developing his defensive side and put in extra hourson ball retention. Then, with every ball in the back of the net, every confident touch taken and every defender fended off, that £43.5 million will begin to seem a smaller and smaller figure.
The player who won over Old Trafford hearts the day he signed, now has 5 months to win over the Dutchman’s mind. It is early days for sure, but he is moving in the right direction in some ways, and United fans will be hoping the rough edges smoothen themselves out naturally with game time. The signs are mixed but the player is willing. The rest, as they say, only time will tell.
(Statistics courtesy Squawka, WhoScored and FourFourTwo)