If you asked me to sum up the feeling in Old Trafford on Sunday as Radamel Falcao solemnly trudged off the pitch, probably for the last time, I’d really struggle.
There was a general consensus that everybody outwardly acknowledged but tacitly refused to accept; a torrent of noisy gratitude for the man’s fruitless efforts was indelibly tinted with a disheartened, slightly emotional adieu.
The romanticised image of Falcao seamlessly eviscerating defences with the same aplomb that had seen him score 52 times in 68 games for Atletico Madrid, had sadly failed to come to fruition at Manchester United.
Falcao’s arrival back in September merited an eruption of elation and slight astonishment, but his inevitable departure will undoubtedly warrant a bitter feeling of dejection amongst supporters. The Falcao experiment under Louis van Gaal hasn’t worked; the Columbian has to move on.
The striker looked understandably crestfallen as he waved to an Old Trafford crowd that has never ceased to support him in the encounter with Arsenal (the final home fixture of the 2014/15 season). His opportunity to reassert himself amongst the world’s elite forwards, after a long-term injury, had been hopelessly squandered (at least for now).
But was it his entire fault? Needless to say, Falcao’s time at Man United will always be seen as nothing more than nine months of expensive underachievement. But before an unsuccessful season ends for the Columbian other factors need to be acknowledged and explored as to why something that started with such promise ended in acrimonious anticlimax.
Man United fans never got to see the Falcao who terrrorised La Liga. Frustrating as that is, it’s also clear why.
Diego Simeone seldom gets the credit he deserves for the way he turned a rough diamond of a striker into a goalscoring machine at Atletico. The Argentine quickly realised that Falcao was largely ineffective outside the box or as a striker who holds up the ball. Instead, Simeone placed his tactical emphasis on making sure Falcao was in dangerous positions inside the box, with surrounding attacking players like Koke and Turan acting as ominous suppliers and his strike partner, Costa, the vigorous decoy. Atletico’s system was built around Falcao to every last detail, and they reaped the benefits.
In a season that has seen innumerable formation changes under Louis van Gaal, with a seemingly never-ending series of bewildering, sometimes hilarious positional changes, Falcao (and he isn’t the only one) has failed to acclimatise and fully settle under the Dutchman.
As a player who flourishes alongside a selfless, channel operating strike partner in a formation that deploys orthodox wingers (the ones who manically surge towards the byline at any possible moment), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Falcao has faltered alongside strikers who don’t try and create space for others in a formation that generally deploys introverted wingers or wingbacks (if you look back to the dark days of 3-5-2).
Louis van Gaal never looked to accommodate Falcao in his various systems, so his constant teetering on the periphery of proceedings must be partly attributed to the notorious ‘philosophy’ hampering his influence.
However, playing under a system that doesn’t align with your strengths isn’t a liable excuse. Needless to say, the ability to perform regardless of the formation and style is the mark of a supremely talented footballer. His time under Louis van Gaal and his uninspiring stint at Monaco are indicators of Falcao not being equipped with the same versatility that has seen the likes of Wayne Rooney become such an important asset for Man United.
Perhaps the elephant in the room needs to be addressed now. In the heat of discussion, people tend to forget about it or dismiss it, despite its unavoidable importance – his injury.
Speaking from personal experience, being sidelined for nine months with a knee injury is excruciating, especially when playing sport is a vital aspect of your life.
Once you come back to playing football after so long it isn’t the pleasant experience that you imagined it to be when you were doing strange leg-strengthening exercises in your room; you’ve lost a noteworthy yard of pace, you’re out of breath after a couple of sprints, your touch is rustier than that bike which you haven’t taken out of the shed since you were eight.
In other words, returning to your best after such a long time away from football is something people seldom manage to do. Michael Owen acts as a telling example, Theo Walcott has struggled as well. With Falcao, it appears that such a horrific injury has obscured his attacking potency to an irreversible extent.
Understandably so, however – as somebody who has had an ACL injury, you find that your body can’t help but move a bit more cautiously.
So for somebody like Falcao, who is very much still in a period of rehabilitation, playing in the Premier League is a highly questionable move. Its notorious physicality and speed isn’t really conducive to an environment where recovering ACL tear victims can prosper.
So although the striker is a proven talent, the Premier League has proven to be a place where Falcao’s physical limitations have unfortunately shaped his loan spell at Man United.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, there was an assured sadness pervading around every corner of Old Trafford as Falcao trotted off against Arsenal. Despite only managing an inadequate 4 goals and 4 assists in 26 appearances, the striker has invoked a level of admiration amongst supporters.
Why did we always want Falcao to score more than everyone else? Why did we experience an unparalleled dizzy elation when he actually managed to score a goal?
The answer is simple. Falcao always gave his all. In spite of all the factors working against him, Falcao never stopped trying. Man United fans demand success but also laud valiant efforts to force the issue. As a striker, his work rate was exceptional.
More significantly, he adored the club. His equaliser at Villa Park – which sent the striker into a wild, ecstatic celebration right in front of the travelling supporters – encapsulated his passion and desire to succeed at Man United.
There was a passage of play last Sunday that summed up the Columbian’s efforts at Man United; he picked up the ball, promptly gave it away, heroically got it back and flew past a number of players before being brought down, winning a free kick that invariably led to nothing, triggering a noisy rendition of his much-loved song from the Stretford End – immense courage and conviction had ultimately led to nothing.
His efforts under Louis van Gaal are much appreciated, that much was clear in light of his reception last Sunday, but it was ultimately in vain. Falcao’s job was to be a consistent goalscoring threat, bagging vital goals in big matches and terrorising defences – the Monaco loanee hasn’t done that.
In this sense, Falcao hasn’t delivered during his short spell at Man United, meaning that the Dutchman shouldn’t (and won’t) offer the striker a permanent deal during the summer.
But before the Columbian makes his way back to Monaco (or wherever he chooses to go), United fans ought to bear in mind that this unsuccessful spell has been blighted by several other factors that coexisted alongside Falcao’s own ineptitude. His determination to succeed despite these punishing factors is something nobody should forget.