We need to talk about Radamel.
Pretty much the whole world was shocked when it was announced at the end of the summer transfer window that Manchester United were going to sign El Tigre – especially given that he was still recovering from the double blow of a serious knee injury and the heartbreak of missing the World Cup that surely would have been his best chance of grabbing the tournament and taking it for himself. Nevertheless, the excitement was tangible amongst United fans. Radamel Falcao. The one from all those YouTube videos. The one who took Chelsea to pieces all by himself. The one who kept Diego Costa out of the Atletico Madrid team. Radamel actual Falcao.
The transfer was of course tinged with sadness as it paved the way for Danny Welbeck to leave the club, but even Welbeck’s most staunch defenders would have struggled to make a case that Falcao was not a huge step up in terms of quality and pedigree. What’s more, it was not the signing United needed at all. With a dearth of defensive quality available, United decided the way to success was by shooting their way up – and what better man than the Colombian colossus with a point to prove? Falcao was thrown in to the first team as soon as possible and in the context of his return from injury and lack of a pre-season, did rather well. He set up some goals, he scored the winner against Everton, and he looked generally lively, if not quite the razor sharp predator as which he has made a name for himself. More important than his statistics or even his performance, however, was the mood he brought to the club. Almost before playing a game for the club he became a cult hero, with his own song and a genuine roar, a palpable sense of excitement and joy from the Old Trafford crowd every time even a half chance fell his way. He was snatching at his chances but it seemed that this was out of a fierce desire to make an impression early on, and that the goals would come. The strangest signing of the window was, it seemed, turning out to be a successful one.
Then came his calf injury. In hindsight and taking into account the bigger picture, an excuse to not play Falcao until he was back to his best may have been a blessing in disguise, especially for such a high-profile player. The club had a chance to keep him away from the cameras, away from fickle fans, and away from defenders like Ryan Shawcross. However, it did not quite turn out that way. The injury crisis which has only now, in the middle of January, subsided had ravaged the squad and as a result, manager Louis van Gaal was forced to put Falcao back into the first team squad ahead of schedule. By his own admission, Van Gaal prefers to bring players back by playing them in the reserves first and then into the match-day squad. However, a combination of a lack of under-21 games (which is a serious issue for another day) and a lack of available first team players, Falcao was named on the bench and had to make cameo after cameo, 15 or 20 minutes when games were already won or lost in order to get his match fitness back. Whilst this was unavoidable, some fans began to see the signing in a different light. The one year loan with an option to buy which had seemed so prudent at the start of the season now seemed to be a swindle, a bad joke at the expense of United, who would pay £6 million plus astronomical wages to watch their statement to the Premier League warm up and down the touchlines for a year and get himself to peak condition before moving to Madrid and scoring 40 goals a season for the rest of his career.
What has happened since the Colombian’s return from injury has been in some ways equally frustrating for United fans, and his omission from the 18-man squad for the game against Southampton is a genuine concern for his future at Old Trafford. In fact, when viewed in tandem with his withdrawal before the end of several of the five games which he has recently started, even when his performance has been better than players such as Robin van Persie who stayed on the field, it is a worrying series of events. There is an argument that he is simply being very carefully managed after a very serious injury, but Falcao’s face when he was sat on the bench having been taken off in the 1-1 draw with Stoke on New Year’s Day was not one of someone who was part of a carefully designed plan – he looked like a broken man. Strikers famously feed off confidence and as we have seen at Old Trafford with Robin van Persie and around the league with strikers like Mario Balotelli and Fernando Torres, if they are not loved they can sink into near-inescapable ruts.
Of course, we could be looking too much into this. Van Gaal said he preferred the pace of James Wilson off the bench, and that he needed cover for the recently returned Daley Blind and Luke Shaw – neither of whom were ready to complete 90 minutes. I have no reason to doubt him, and part of me is utterly delighted that Wilson is rated so highly by his manager that he can force one of the world’s most feared attackers out of the squad. Moreover, had the wealth of attacking talent that was selected been even slightly less ineffectual then it is unlikely we would be talking about it at all – players coming back from injury need breaks after starting five games on the spin. However the fact is that throughout United’s strangely underwhelming unbeaten run which came to an end on Sunday they have lacked cutting edge and creativity, and a striker who is more than capable of changing that has been deployed in a relatively peripheral role by Van Gaal. It is a strange situation and one that is a cause for concern, if not for United, then certainly for their first Galactico.