Turning to Falcao: Chelsea’s striking dilemna

Ironically, if anyone can partly-understand what Fernando Torres has gone through in the past twenty-one months, it is Radamel Falcao.

Having arrived at Porto – who, in the past decade, have an acclaimed record for signing players for relative pittance, helping them to mature in European competitions and then selling them for a gargantuan profit – to replace Lisandro López in 2008, the pressure on Falcao for instant environmental and tactical assimilation was immense.

Lisandro had netted 63 goals in 143 matches for Porto over the course of four seasons and, having established himself as a cult figure with his energetic style and ducktail beard, seemed near-irreplaceable. Falcao, smartly, arriving in Europe for the first time at the age of twenty-three, had an admirable striking ratio of 1:2.24 (49 in 110) with River Plate but, seemingly, was a much more different striking option: bulkier, slower and not as deft a finisher and poacher.

Seemingly, though, any talk of the Colombian being fazed by the intense pressure of the Estádio do Dragão was swiftly banished with Falcao’s brilliant 34 goals in 43 matches for Porto in 2009/2010, but given how Falcao’s first pre-season under André Villas-Boas panned out at the beginning of 2010/2011, there were murmurs of discontent within the club. After all, it must be noted that the exposure of pre-season football in Portugal is huge and when Porto had just dispensed with the wily Jesualdo Ferreira, the winner of three Liga Sagres titles, for Villas-Boas, who had just led Academica to 11th place in his first seven months of management, this coverage was accentuated even further.

Thus, when Falcao failed to find the net in any of Porto’s pre-season games and Villas-Boas’ 4-3-3 was, curiously, lambasted for not creating enough opportunities, link-up play and crosses, question were already being asked of Porto’s dynamic new coach. Rather than changing to 4-4-2 to give Falcao more direct support and to accommodate Cristian Rodriguez on the wing, though – with Hulk up front – Villas-Boas stuck with his trademark, spring-offensive 4-3-3. From this, once João Moutinho settled, more opportunities arose for Hulk and Silvestre Varela to feed Falcao, who went on to score a magnificent 37 goals in 42 games in 2009/2010. In Falcao’s own words, “it was the season that defined my career”, but had it not been for the immensely-influential Villas-Boas’ now often ridiculed stubbornness, it seems unlikely that Falcao’s nishe, as a pure lone striker, would have been established so rapidly.

Blessed with near-unrivalled acceleration, brilliant hold-up play, quick feet, an adept heading ability, curling long shots and an array of finishing variants in one-on-one situations, Falcao more than banished the ghost of Lisandro in 2009/2010 and 2010/2011. Also, the Colombian possesses near-unrivalled tactical ingenuity for a lone centre forward, as he has thrived in both Porto’s and Atlético Madrid’s counter-centered, pace-propelled formations, with markedly clinical finishing backing up predatory striking movement and instincts. Also, in facing yet more pressure in being the debt-ridden Atlético Madrid’s most expensive ever signing at €47 million – and having ‘only’ proven himself in Portugal – Falcao has thrived under the weight of expectation.

Proving himself as one of the most clinical and influential players in the Europa League’s (the UEFA Cup’s, too) history, with a stunning, combined twenty-nine goals in thirty-one games for Porto and Atlético Madrid in just two seasons, Falcao was the key reason behind Porto and Madrid’s triumphs in 2010/2011 and 2011/2012 respectively. Far from ‘only’ excelling in Europe’s second tier, though, Falcao scored four goals in eight Champions League appearances in his debut campaign for Porto in the competition in 2009/2010: proving, even then, that his prolific exploits could easily translate to the world’s most prestigious club competition.

Unsurprisingly, a combined striking record of 117 goals in 143 games in just over three seasons for Porto and Atlético has meant that Falcao is behind only the unsellable Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (even with his “sadness”, it seems unimaginable that the Portuguese will leave Real Madrid at his peak). Therefore – accentuated by the ill-legacy of Atlético’s former, notorious president Jesús Gill, with the club in €514 million worth of debt – it may well be hard for Atlético to keep Falcao at the Vicente Calderón. Miguel Angel Gil Marin, Atlético’s general manager, has not disguised his openness to Falcao leaving before the beginning of the 2013/2014 season :

Sixty million euros would solve all the [short-term] economic problems at Atlético

Augmenting this, a move away will be inevitable if Madrid fail to qualify for the 2013/2014 Champions League, as the club have few financial or domestic ambitions (difficulty of consistently challenging Barcelona and Real Madrid for thirty-eight matches) outside of chasing the Champions League’s lucrative finances.

Admittedly, it must be noted that Falcao – mirroring the similar, cult-like status of Edinson Cavani at Napoli – is far from an individual who would push or strike for a move, but it does seem, according to his close father, that a transfer to Chelsea and the Premier League would seriously interest him in the future. Far from fantasy football either, Falcao putting in a stunning display in an inadvertent shop window opportunity in the 4-1 Super Cup victory on 31 August, 2012 will have certainly maintained Chelsea’s interest – given how easily Falcao weaved past the post-Terry central backline of Gary Cahill, David Luiz and Petr Čech on numerous occasions – but, in ways, that is just how Torres secured his place in Roman Abramovich’s obsessive, transfer radar.

It was Anfield on 7 November, 2012. Chelsea were still badly labouring in Carlo Ancelotti’s infamous “difficult moment” and in serious need of a re-injection of goals, spunk, deftness and pace. Tellingly, in the words of Ancelotti, “Torres was the difference”: taking two brilliant finishes on 11’and 44’. The first was Torres’ signature Anfield goal, with the Spaniard delicately breaking the offside trap to calmly slot home Dirk Kuyt’s lofted through ball with two magnificently weighted touches and a lob over Čech; the second was one of Torres’ greatest goals in English football, with the striker cutting inside Branislav Ivanović on the right-hand side, momentarily picking out the top left-hand corner and, near-instantly, leaving Čech flat-footed with a sumptuous, twenty-yard curling drive.

The rest, at Chelsea, of course is history: Torres’ exploits improved significantly once Juan Mata was signed and moved into the central number ten position under Roberto Di Matteo in the second-half of 2011/2012; Torres has displayed near-unrivalled energy, work-rate and unselfishness (twelve assists in 2011/2012); and the Spaniard has enjoyed the undying support of the Chelsea fans, who provided the most cherished moment of his career when they chanted ‘Torres, Torres’ when he was on the bench against Wolves on 2 January, 2012. However, for £50 million, the attribute Torres was, naturally, going to be judged on was his goalscoring.

Given that Chelsea have seriously struggled for a consistent striking outlet since Didier Drogba’s phenomenal thirty-seven domestic goal showing in the Double-winning campaign of 2009/2010, it is perhaps no surprise that Torres’ fairly barren exploits have been a running parallel. Sure, the Spaniard has enjoyed the greatest seven months of his career (13 goals in 35 appearances for club and country) since the first-half of 2009/2010, but Torres still seems unable to banish the shadow of Drogba. This may seem quite a remarkable statement, given that Chelsea have put undeniable faith in Torres after not only refusing to offer Drogba something of a sentimental, two-year contract extension, but, also, in loaning out Romelu Lukaku to West Brom and not signing another back-up striker this summer. However, given the Ivorian’s standing in the club’s history, in scoring nine goals in ten cup finals and netting the decisive penalty that Torres so desperately wanted to take against Bayern Munich on 9 May, 2012, the pressure has not been eased on the Spaniard.

Sure, Chelsea are still in philosophical transition, with the natural, thump-weighted long ball still hit at Torres by David Luiz an undoubted legacy of Drogba’s impact on the club’s playing style from 2005-2012, but in not having to do so much of the legwork – due to Chelsea being a more proactive outfit in 2012/2013 – that he voluntarily signed up for to keep himself in matches last season, Torres, ironically, at times, seems to have struggled to do what made him a worldwide sensation: use his once-unrivaled instincts and finish clinically and consistently when presented with multiple goalscoring opportunities during a match. After all, having just hit a fantastic, cunning hooked finish against Arsenal on 29 September, Torres then chose to momentarily dally and cut in, rather than chip a goalscoring chances minutes later.

Also, with Oscar, Mata and Eden Hazard all in Chelsea’s purposefully-designed attacking trident, the formation could not be better designed for Torres to thrive on the increased, ‘flick of the switch’ ground ball through the middle. After all, Di Matteo has even altered his staples in recent weeks – be it not consistently picking the slower-paced Frank Lampard as a mediano or not using Ramires as an inverted, counter-attacking right winger – and, clearly, this has been aimed at the quicker, over/under the top, acceleration-centered, marker-spinning service that Torres thrives on.

The real question, having played for Ancelotti, Villas-Boas and Di Matteo – and having suffered similar inconsistency with Spain whenever Vicente Del Bosque has opted to give Torres a rare start, owed often to sentimentality rather than current form – is whether it is Torres himself. If this proves to be the case and Torres fails to maintain his promising 1:2 current goal ratio this season up to, say, January, the option of Falcao seems a no-brainer: the player has the stature and physicality to adjust to the Premier League; is eligible for the Champions League; and, in being two years younger than Torres, the Colombian is undoubtedly at, or imminently approaching, his peak.

That, though, would not be an Abramovich signing of today as Torres apart – which in itself, was something of an irony as the Spaniard had vast Premier League experience – the Russian has made a conscious effort, with the looming Financial Fair Play, to move away from continentally-proven, experienced, globetrotting names like Michael Ballack, Andriy Shevchenko and Deco. Instead, in the past two seasons, players under the age of twenty-three have been targeted and while Falcao seems the perfect in-between – in immediately slotting into Chelsea’s first XI and having at least four more seasons at the very top – Chelsea remain loyal to their number nine.

With amortisation on a potentially lengthy contract and high transfer fee, £50 million on Falcao would not sting Chelsea terribly – presuming that, in the coming years, there will be a degree of self-sufficiency with the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Ryan Bertrand, Gary Cahill, Josh McEachran, Oriol Romeu, Victor Moses and Lucas Piazon stepping up into the first XI. However, immense faith, perhaps seen as naivety in some quarters, remains with Torres and Abramovich is unlikely to have yet made a decision until Torres – in a Shevchenko-like fashion, when José Mourinho purposefully-designed diamond 4-4-2 and trademark 4-3-3 failed – really has, beyond all the mini-revivals and seemingly false dawns, failed to live up to his Premier League pedigree and latest form recovery.

The Author

Ciaran Kelly

Sports writer and author of José Mourinho: The Rise of the Translator, featuring exclusive interviews with key figures not synonymous with the traditional Mourinho narrative and Johan Cruyff: The Total Voetballer, an ebook which peaked in the Top 40 of Amazon's top 100 Sports Books' chart. I have also written for Britain best selling football magazine, FourFourTwo and other British publications. I am a fully qualified reporter with an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism and a Masters degree in Sports Journalism from St. Mary's University, London.

One thought on “Turning to Falcao: Chelsea’s striking dilemna

  1. Well done ciaran. Very deeply researched article, a lot of interesting viewpoints. One of the best blogs or articles I’ve read about Falcao and his future job prospects incl. Chelsea.

    Although you’re very young you have an interesting writing style. Very long one-sentence paragraphs with several different kinds of punctuation so we don’t get lost in the forest of words.

    Very raw-looking, those long sentences but you’ve got some talent I think. They remind me of a 19th century writer, maybe Dostoeyevsky? But there’s a bit more purpose here, less rambling and digression… but rambling is a writing style in itself and not necessarily a bad thing.

    Well done, keep up the very good work.

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