With Falcao at Man U, Van Gaal has lineup quandary
LONDON (AP) — No longer feared by their rivals? A diminished footballing force? Manchester United is flexing its financial muscle to show otherwise.
A week after pulling off one transfer coup by signing Angel Di Maria from Real Madrid, the struggling 20-time English champions took the football world by surprise as the summer transfer window by bringing striker Radamel Falcao to Old Trafford from Monaco.
Now Louis Van Gaal’s managerial reputation could hang on his ability to mold a team from the $250-million summer transfer spending — having loaded the team with attacking additions rather than significantly strengthening the shaky defense.
Persuading Falcao to come to Old Trafford — initially on a season-long loan with the option for a permanent deal — might have been easier than the challenge of finding a way to accommodate the striker in a starting lineup with Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney.
How do you fit three strikers into two spots in Van Gaal’s favored, but currently faltering, 3-5-2 formation?
“The problem is who doesn’t play ... it’s a lovely problem,” former United midfielder Paddy Crerand said on the club’s in-house TV channel on Monday evening. “That is the job that has to be done (by Van Gaal) because no one wants to be left out.”
The fall guy might have to be Rooney falling back into a midfield role. The newly anointed captain can hardly complain. It was the England forward who complained four years ago about United’s lack of ambition when he threatened to quit Old Trafford (for the first time).
Although Rooney’s relationship with Alex Ferguson became further fractured when the manager denied him the chance to be the man leading the strike force by making him play in a deeper position.
“I felt I deserved the right to play in my position and that wasn’t happening,” Rooney said last year in the wake of Ferguson’s retirement. “I can play midfield. Maybe when I’m a bit older, losing my legs a bit, I can go back there.”
It might have to come sooner. Such sacrifices come with being handed both the honor and responsibility of wearing the captain’s armband. Particularly after United’s dismal start to the season. Van Gaal arrived as the tactical genius who led the Netherlands to third place at the World Cup, but after four games at United still awaits a win.
With just two goals in four games, United’s need for a scorer like Falcao has become clear, although the deal was unexpected as late as Sunday on the eve of transfer deadline day. Falcao’s only season at Monaco was ended in January through injury, but his prowess was evident when he scored 70 goals in 91 appearances at Atletico Madrid.
If Falcao can turn around United’s fortunes, he might even become a contender for the FIFA player of the year award. United’s hierarchy has yearned for a Ballon d’Or winner in its squad since 2008 recipient Cristiano Ronaldo left for Real Madrid.
Powerful in the air and explosive on the ball, Falcao should offer United a more potent, physical presence inside the penalty area as more of a poacher than Rooney or Van Persie.
Van Persie’s goals might have delivered the Premier League title for Ferguson in his final season before retirement in 2013, but persistent injuries are a growing concern. Those injuries might yet spare Van Gaal a difficult decision about how to keep the strikers happy.
Had United been in Europe — for the first time since 1995 the Red Devils aren’t — squad rotation would have been necessary. But following the humiliating loss at third-tier club MK Dons in the League Cup last week, United only has Premier League games until the FA Cup third round in January.
Returning to the Premier League’s top four to qualify for the Champions League is the minimum requirement after last season’s seventh-place finish. With the firepower soon to be at Van Gaal’s disposal, United has the time to recover from its winless start to mount a title challenge.
If not, the pursuit of Falcao might come to be viewed as an expensive luxury. And questions will be raised if the $250 million spent in two frantic summer months could have been better spent on a more balanced squad.
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris