It’s often said there’s no such thing as incompatibility between great players. Regardless of circumstance or individual style, the world’s best should possess more than enough talent to gel together and adapt their games accordingly – but Manchester United’s Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao could well be the anomaly defying that old rule.
Singularly, both are considered to be amongst the top strikers in world football. RVP, a two-time Premier League Golden Ball winner with two different clubs, immortalised by a stunning volley against Charlton Athletic in 2006 and perhaps the greatest header of all time at the 2014 World Cup; Falcao, a striker with a career return of 225 goals in 375 appearances, boasting the highest goal record for a single Europa League campaign to date, 17, two nominations for the Ballon d’Or and the runner-up strike for the 2011/12 Puskas award.
Yet, their combination as a strike partnership for Manchester United this season has bore worryingly limited fruits. They’ve scored just ten times combined in the 13 games in which both have featured, and perhaps most tellingly of all, only against Leicester City in January have both scored when starting together in the same fixture.
A decent contribution perhaps for a club lower in the Premier League table, but for two strikers that tend to score around 25-30 league goals per season when at full health, and would cost the Red Devils £70million combined if they were to sign the Colombian permanently this summer, it’s certainly below par.
To give some comparison, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, a partnership that were purchased for half of that aforementioned fee, netted 34 goals in the 24 fixtures in which they both featured last season, whilst RVP and Rooney claimed 29 goals from their 29 appearances together during United’s last title campaign, with their assists haul also firmly into the double figures.
This should be a match made in heaven, so why isn’t it quite working out? The Dutchman and the Colombian have both endured injures for periods of the season – Falcao, still on the mend from his mysterious leg injury at Monaco – and United are hardly playing the best football at the minute, summarised perfectly by Sam Allardyce’s recent ‘long ball United’ quip. But in my opinion, their incompatibility can be sourced to one factor – the countless similarities between the two strikers.
Although expert finishing will be the defining attribute of the majority of strikers in world football, for RVP and Falcao, ruthlessness in front of goal engulfs the vast majority of their respective games. There’s some elusive movement and acrobatic athleticism thrown in too, but whilst front-men like Wayne Rooney, Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero provide a variety of services and a holistic all-round contribution, RVP and Falcao are obsessed with just one thing – screaming the ball into the back of the onion bag whenever possible, be it from the most acute of angles or audacious of distances.
In short, they’re both the player you want to receive the ball last in any given attacking move – the clinical spearhead exploiting the supply line. In theory, the inclusion of both should lead to almost every United attack resulting in a goal, but in practice it’s left the Red Devils imbalanced in the final third, as if they’re one creative presence short of breaking down opposition defences.
And just as they share the same defining strength, United’s defunct strike partnership are also cursed by the same weaknesses.
Neither were blessed with prolific pace or strength even in their younger years, so now 31 and 29 respectively, they lack the physicality and energy to keep defences on their toes. Throughout United’s starting XI, the penetration and threat in-behind that often defined them under Sir Alex Ferguson is abundantly absent, and as a result, their attack’s become worryingly static this season, especially when facing deep defences, with everything getting too predictable, too linear and too congested in the final third.
As a consequence of their limited physicality and devotion to shooting, neither offer significantly much to United’s build-up play. Whilst some of the best partnerships in world football are created through combining a link-man with spearhead, United’s front men both belong in the latter category, neither averaging more than 0.9 chances created per match this term. In contrast, former Red Devil Danny Welbeck has averaged 1.5 created chances per match when deployed at centre-forward for Arsenal, Burnley’s Danny Ings boasts 1.2 and Chelsea’s Diego Costa is streets ahead with 1.7.
Only time on the pitch can lead to a greater sense of familiarity between the two strikers, but counter-intuitively, both have struggled for form in recent weeks. Despite facing the likes of Yeovil, Cambridge United and Preston in the FA Cup, Falcao has scored twice and van Persie just thrice in their last ten outings for the Red Devils. It feels important to highlight United’s less affluent displays in recent weeks once again, but whether that’s a cause or consequence of their strike partnership’s bluntness remains open to interpretation.
To get the best out of both, one will have to modify their game to better accommodate the other. With both around the 30 mark and Falcao’s loan deal unlikely to be extended come the summer however, such a transition process, in my opinion at least, simply isn’t worth the hassle. If Louis van Gaal wishes to keep United as efficient as possible, it should now be a case of choosing between the two strikers until the end of the season.