The Radamel Falcao to Manchester United rumours won't go away. Sir Alex Ferguson has played down the speculation, but reports United sent their chief scout to watch Falcao play for Atletico Madrid recently (Daily Mail) would strongly suggest he's at least considering the notion.
It's not hard to understand why United might be interested. Falcao has been prolific in La Liga, and his robust style of play appears ideally suited to life in the Premier League.
The Colombian is an instinctive finisher, with frightening pace and considerable upper-body strength. He can score goals with both feet and his head, and his spacial awareness and footballing intelligence put him in the position to do so with startling regularity.
You'll see Falcao described as a "pure striker"—an ode to simpler tactical times when the man spearheading your team was a force of nature tasked purely with terrorising defences. As Tim Palmer wrote for SB Nation, "Falcao is the stereotypical centre forward in an era where those stereotypes have perhaps ceased to have meaning."
Michael Cox, writing for ESPNFC, described Falcao as, "the most renowned penalty box poacher in European football."
Ferguson, having once been a striker aspiring to that title himself, may very well see Falcao as a romantic window to football's glorious past. The grand old man of Old Trafford has evolved his tactics over the years, but he still loves a winger, and he has always been partial to an arch predator leading his line.
He signed Ruud van Nistelrooy. He signed Andy Cole. He signed Javier Hernandez. He even signed Michael Owen. He tried very hard, unsuccessfully, to sign Alan Shearer.
But Ferguson's most notable recent capture, that of Robin van Persie, fits a different category. Van Persie's is a more subtle craft. He can poach with the best of them and classes himself as a No. 9 these days (Daily Mail), but he's a very different animal to Falcao.
For an example, let's look at Van Persie's heat map from United's 3-0 win against Aston Villa—a game in which he scored a hat-trick to seal the Premier League title. What you'll see is Van Persie bringing influence in wide areas and also doing plenty of work in the central area you might usually find an attacking midfielder or a No. 10.
Now let's compare that to the heat map of Falcao's latest outing for Atletico against Sevilla.
Falcao was far less concerned with dropping deep. He did his work further up the field and lived up to his reputation as a classic No. 9 who prowls the penalty area.
Does this suggest Van Persie and Falcao could play in the same team together without disrupting each other's influence? Might there be a way to marry their combined talents in potentially the most exciting forward partnership in world football?
Possibly, but with Falcao's game inflexible to change it would require Van Persie to return a little further towards the No. 10 role he played at Arsenal. Judging by an interview he gave Sky Sports in January, that's not something he wants to do.
Said Van Persie of his happy transformation to a No. 9 at Old Trafford, as quoted by the Daily Mail:
It’s a different game, they’re very close to each other playing No. 10 or No. 9. But there’s a big difference. As a No. 9 you have much more intervals—stop-start, looking for spaces, waiting, then going for it and taking chances.
As a No. 10 you have to deal with the defensive midfielder of the opposition. Depending how they play you can have a really difficult game.
Difficult games are perhaps what contributed to Van Persie's many injury problems at Arsenal—the suggestion being that Ferguson is protecting him as a No. 9 and avoiding the kind of intensity that made him vulnerable before.
It's an argument backed up by Van Persie's relatively clean bill of health this season, but if you look closely at his positional play, he's still operating a lot in No. 10 areas. He might not be making the tracking runs and putting in the tackles he did before, but he's still roaming.
In November last year, a knowing Van Persie suggested he and Wayne Rooney were playing the role of a "nine and a half," in the sense that they brought equal parts of the No. 9 and No. 10 roles to their partnership (FIFA).
It's this fact, combined with Rooney's inevitable long-term switch to a midfield home, that makes Ferguson playing Falcao, Van Persie and Rooney together a plausible possibility. If he was to do it, this is how United might line up next season.
Quite the attack-minded set-up, I'll grant you, and it doesn't allow Shinji Kagawa to operate in the central role he's best suited to, but it would still a formidable XI capable of ripping an opponent to shreds.
If you wanted a more conservative take, how about this one:
This time Tom Cleverly and Antonio Valencia are employed to assist Michael Carrick in shielding his back four, freeing Rooney to do more attacking work and putting greater emphasis on Van Persie and Falcao to make themselves available in wide areas.
It might just work.
For any of this to be possible, United have to sign Falcao first, of course, which would represent a huge statement of intent and require Ferguson to have such faith in the striker that he was prepared to pay an estimated £40-50 million to get him.
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