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To say that Manchester United’s deadline day move for Radamel Falcao was a shock would be something of an understatement. Following a summer in which the gossip columns have been stuffed with rumours linking midfielders such as Arturo Vidal to the club, no one saw a move for the Colombian coming.
Yet while Falcao’s calibre cannot be questioned, his place within United’s hugely unbalanced “broken squad” can be. Louis van Gaal has already struggled to fit the pieces of his first-team puzzle together, and the arrival of another supposedly first-choice attacker only complicates matters.
The combination of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata has so far looked pedestrian due to a lack of movement, the redundancy of the Spaniard’s role within the trio and the excessive over-lapping of behaviour between the three. However, it’s hard to see how this famous yet flawed attack will be broken up any time soon.
New club captain Rooney won’t be going anywhere, either out of the club or onto the bench given his ownership of the armband and the generous contract he signed under David Moyes last year. Mata only arrived in January for a then club record fee and has thus far been treated as an important starter by Van Gaal. The cost incurred to bring him to Old Trafford has since been blown out of the water by Angel Di Maria’s price tag this summer, while the big signing of two seasons ago, Van Persie, is a favourite of both his Dutch manager and the fans.
And then there’s Falcao. With United’s defence looking shaky and short on numbers within a new three-man configuration, and the club’s midfield still in need of a player of comparable quality to the individuals up front, even after the signings of Daley Blind and Ander Herrera, what must be done to make it all work?
A new super sub?
With Javier Hernandez leaving Real Madrid on loan—and Danny Welbeck also heading through the exit door—perhaps Falcao has been signed to replenish United's options beyond van Gaal's starting XI Neither Hernandez nor Welbeck flourished as substitutes and as absurd as the idea of bringing in a world class striker to warm the bench may be, it's not beyond the realms of possibility.
At Ajax, Van Gaal used back up strikers to great effect to turn games - famously winning the Champions League thanks to a goal from super sub, Patrick Kluivert - and he also regularly made good use of Nwankwo Kanu as an impact player, introducing him late on in games to get the best of tired defences.
Both players were youngsters at the time however, unlike the 28-year-old Colombian, but with Rooney and Van Persie both offering more in terms of their contribution besides the team's goal tally, the prospect of United keeping one of the world's greatest finishers on the sidelines to swing games when needed may not be as far fetched as it sounds.
Rooney to become a midfielder
Alternatively, with the search for an alternative to Kevin Strootman having so far failed to find a suitable proxy for the injured Roma star —widely assumed to be the midfielder Van Gaal wants above any others— change may be afoot for one of the players currently in possession of a starting berth in United's attack.
Sir Alex Ferguson saw Rooney's future lying in midfield, where the forward's exceptional vision and reading of attacking opportunities could be harnessed to feed his colleagues further forward up field. The theory was occasionally put into practise with some very memorable results, most notably Van Persie's title-winning goal against Aston Villa in 2013, scored from a beautiful long ball from Rooney in midfield, which in some ways foreshadowed the delivery Blind provided for his Dutch colleague against Spain at the World Cup.
Part of the appeal of trying to bring in Arturo Vidal with Stootman unavailable was his ability to score goals as well as dominate games through the middle, and while United's new captain would very much be an attacking midfielder rather than a complete, box-to-box player like the Chilean, he would likely still add goals to the team from a deep-lying position.
Rooney wouldn't be the ideal midfield solution for United, but he does have some genuine potential to be an asset further back for Van Gaal, if only to accommodate Falcao, Van Persie and Mata in the front three ahead of him. Whether the Englishman, who has also been made captain of his country, would accept the idea of once again being reinvented in a position to suit his manager rather than his own ambition is another thing.
Another landmark signing
Falcao's arrival may be seen as overkill if looked at from a perspective of how it may affect the starting XI, especially given the talent already at Old Trafford and the other names that arrived this summer. Never mind the Colombian, how will they all fit in a starting line-up?
That may be the wrong question entirely. Even without Champions League football, Van Gaal may well be trying to build a squad with the numbers and the quality to jump straight back into contention on all fronts as soon as possible. With United currently struggling to even score goals, their chances of returning to the top four look shaky at present.
It would be an extremely expensive way of working, but due to the lack of investment during the final years of Ferguson's reign, and the unbalanced additions brought in under Moyes, the splurge of money this summer could be seen as a move to make up for all the missed opportunities to rebuild in previous years.
In the future, sticking a player like Vidal next to Blind, Herrera, Darren Fletcher or Michael Carrick would give United such a solid midfield base that even the most fanciful and seemingly unsustainable front fours could become valid options. As has been the case for United since the downfall of Owen Hargreaves, all the squad seems to need is one brilliant box-to-box player for everything to fall into place.
A shock departure
However, without Champions League football, the idea of building and maintaining a squad of such size, full of big names and big egos, seems like a risky endeavour. How can the likes of Rooney, Van Persie, Di Maria, Falcao and others be kept happy without a regular supply of games, week-in, week-out, befitting their talent and status? The answer may come in the shock ejection of one or more of United's stars in order to rebalance the team.
Mata has looked utterly inconsequential of late as the playmaker in van Gaal's 3-5-2. Against Burnley, he looked like a wasted man out on the pitch, especially given the deficit Fletcher was left to deal with as the team's only defensive midfielder at Turf Moor.
For all the Spaniard's usual creativity and pleasant demeanour, he lacks the physical frame and athleticism to assert himself on games in which he isn't able to find or use space effectively. If he continues to look like a spare part for United, he may find himself thrown out of a Premier League club for the second January in a row.
Question marks have also been raised over Van Perise's fitness and attitude, with some fans questioning his mindset last season when the momentum of his first year at United dried up and the going got heavy under Moyes. His injury proneness is also under scrutiny following reports he needs a knee operation.
Regardless of his popularity with Van Gaal, he could find his role within the squad reduced if he's unable to rediscover his spark at the club, or remain the player he was following surgery.
What seems highly unlikely following his captaincy is the idea of Rooney being shipped out, although stranger things have happened. Regardless of what the plan may be though, with Falcao waiting in the wings, a loss of form or fitness could be all it takes for one of Rooney, Van Persie or Mata to lose their place to the on-loan Colombian.
- Sports & Recreation
- Wayne Rooney
- Manchester United
- Louis van Gaal
- Arturo Vidal