There are some players who arrive in the Premier League on the back of having performed miracles in other European leagues. For those who have witnessed that success and perhaps identified them as signings they would love their club to make, there is the rare joy of your team’s scouts and managers having a similar eye for talent as you do.
Once arrived you sit back and wait for the player to explode. Except sometimes he doesn’t. He struggles. Now you have a dilemma: Admit that the player has disappointed you and that your initial excitement about his talent was misguided or overblown, or refuse to accept that you were wrong and cling on to the belief that the player you imagined him to be is still in there somewhere, merely suppressed by external forces. Once you have gone down this road of denial there is no turning back and you will cling on to it until the footballer in question retires or flunks somewhere else, or if neither of these eventualities happen, for the rest of your natural life.
An example of this in practice was the signing of Shinji Kagawa. Playing as an attacking midfielder at Dortmund, the hipster team of the time, Kagawa had forged a reputation as a creator and goalscorer in a high-energy counter-attacking team. The general quality of the Bundesliga, below the top 1/2 teams, is usually inferior to that of the Premier League, so the question was whether he could adjust to the technical demands, pace and physicality of the English game. The answer was no. He struggled for a place in the 2012/13 season as United romped to the title. Ferguson tried him in a traditional number 10 position and in the left attacking midfielder role he often played for Japan. The results were similar. Despite having fine technical ability, Kagawa struggled to find and exploit space or add the intensity to his game that is required in the English football.
In Europe, where the tempo was slower, Kagawa fared a little better but his most important asset, goal-scoring, deserted him. His finishing was, with the exception of an excellent hat-trick at home to Norwich, woeful. Many of those who had admired his game in Germany cried foul, arguing that he needed a run of games and that he wasn’t being played in his best role. In truth he had both, but had failed to make the most of his opportunities and was replaced by a manager who couldn’t wait twenty games for his number 10 to start playing well.
With Ferguson retired, Kagawa passed in to the hands of David Moyes. The Scot admitted that, “everyone has told me how good Shinji is”, but failed to share ‘everyone’s’ enthusiasm. At the end of his short tenure the Japanese then had a third manager to impress, Louis van Gaal.
The Dutchman made up his mind quickly and offloaded the player back to Dortmund for a small fee. Throughout this period a hardcore of Kagawa devotees continued to argue that his failure could not possibly be his own fault or due to his own short-comings. It was even suggested that it was a good thing that he was leaving so that he might find a home where he would be appreciated again and used in the correct way and a Twitter hashtag #freeshinji gained some traction. What better destination than the arms of the man who had made him, Juergen Klopp. Where does Kagawa find himself now, under his great mentor? On the bench.
Sometimes, when a player has been built up in your own mind or those of people who influence your footballing opinions, it is difficult to admit to yourself and others that the player you thought you had and desperately wanted to have is not the same as the one you actually got.
We are currently seeing a similar phenomenon with Radamel Falcao. As his surprise signing broke on the last day of the transfer window Manchester United fans were euphoric that a player with his reputation and talent was joining the club. In his mid-twenties at Porto and Atletico Madrid there was little doubt that the Colombian was amongst the best pure centre-forwards in the world. He had pace, power and technique, an ability to be in the right place at the right time or score spectacularly in unlikely situations. A hugely expensive move to Monaco was perhaps not the wisest career move, but Falcao performed reasonably well in a developing team. Then, in January 2014, a serious knee injury would curtail his season and rob him of his place in the Colombian World Cup squad. Following a long recovery, he would start three games for Monaco the following August before his shock move to Manchester.
His signing was built up in the minds of the fans and by the media. Sky Sports ran an interview in which a fawning Geoff Shreeves led Falcao in to the Old Trafford changing rooms, questioning how he felt to be there. The Colombian, who had no doubt seen a few fancy dressing rooms in his life, played the part of the humble, excited player from a third-world country with aplomb.
Falcao’s manager Louis Van Gaal was realistic about his impact, as were many of the fans. His injury had been serious and he would need time to fully recover. Early muscle strains would make his return a stop-start affair, but a typically predatory goal against Everton should have been a restorer of confidence and influence. His manager and the fans remained patient as his recovery continued, but it became obvious to most by early 2015 that all was not right. Gone was the movement, the power, the first touch and, most importantly, the lethal finishing.
Against Tottenham and West Ham the Colombian missed hugely important chances. The nadir came with an absolutely dreadful performance at home to Burnley and a similarly inadequate showing against Sunderland. In the latter match Falcao created the opening goal with an exquisite turn in the box which resulted in a foul and penalty, but the previous hour had been abject and he was substituted early, a recurring theme.
As with Kagawa, United fans have struggled to rationalise his failure. To a man we all desperately wanted him to be the predator of old. Like the Japanese, he is a conscientious, dedicated professional, quiet and humble. This makes acceptance of his decline harder to take. Consigned to the bench and, once, asked to play for the under-21 team, Falcao is simply not the player he once was, his greatest qualities robbed by a cruel injury. But some are unwilling to accept this reality. The same excuses are being presented. The need for a run of games (he has had this), a team who create nothing for him, a manager giving him instructions which blunt his natural qualities, a need to play as a lone striker. The lack of chances the team makes is a particularly weak argument. With supposedly little supply it is a wonder how midfielders like Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini have managed to more than match his tally from deeper positions. It is everyone’s fault bar the player, or rather the player’s unfortunate physical decline. Some would still have Manchester United part with the best part of £100m in fee and wages just in case he moves somewhere else and scores goals. For the hardcore purists his move away and explosion is seen as a fait accompli. United, you see, have ruined him.
All of these excuses looked like folly before Falcao was dropped and Wayne Rooney was restored to the centre forward role. Now they appear untenable. It was clear upon the England striker’s return as a striker in the FA Cup at Preston that United suddenly had mobility and movement in the forward position which had been lacking all season, both from the Colombian and Robin Van Persie. Rooney has gone on to score five in six games (more than Falcao has managed in 20 appearances), taking his total to thirteen for the season, and United have become harder to contain going forward. The England international has issues with his first touch, just as the Colombian now does, but he makes things happen and opens up space for others in a way that the static Falcao simply could not. Rooney’s success on his return to a forward role has surely put the final nail in to his teammates United coffin and it is hard to see a deal to sign the player permanently now happening in the summer.
Like Kagawa, Falcao arrived at United with a huge reputation amid much excitement. Every fan wanted him to excel, to be the player he was, the barnstorming, rampaging centre forward who was deadly and at times unplayable. That player would have scored twenty to twenty-five goals this season out of sheer strength of will, a force of nature. His injury gave him leeway to find his form slowly, but that period of grace has now run out. It is cruel to see such a genuinely nice, hardworking man find that the gifts that made him special are no longer present within him. But no amount of denial or looking for others to blame will bring the old player back. We retain hope, but logic suggests that it will be forlorn. As with Kagawa, blaming the club, the manager, the formation, the weather, the tides and solar eclipses will not bring the old Falcao back. He has not been misused, is no longer unfit and this has gone way past a crisis of confidence. It has taken the return to the centre-forward role of Wayne Rooney to end the debate. United look a different team with their captain in his natural position and Ander Herrera in the midfield role he was odd-jobbing in.
The debate should now be over. I would love to be proved wrong, because United need his goals and because he seems a humble, hard-working human being. Hopefully he will move on in the summer and rediscover his gifts elsewhere, even though it would reopen the debate about his use at United. But I suspect he won’t, because like Shinji Kagawa he will leave Old Trafford not because of the influence of external forces beyond the player’s control but because, quite simply, he is not a good enough footballer anymore.