Every manager on the globe would've sacrificed their left arm to have a striking trio containing Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao at their disposal, right? For Louis van Gaal, the trio seem to give him more of a headache than anything else.
The foot of the problem that has mounted up seems to be that the former manager of Ajax, AZ and Barcelona doesn't have the courage to drop any of the three. This means that one of the best strikers Europe has seen throughout the past decade - Wayne Rooney - is forced to play in an unfamiliar midfield role, while the other two are unable to sort out a successful striking force. Mind it's partly down to lack of supply (ironically from the misfitted Rooney among others), but neither the Colombian or the Dutchman have been delivering what's expected on grounds of their their CVs and salaries.
The Radamel risk
In other words, Van Gaal has a proper conundrum to solve. Letting Falcao go after his loan deal expires in the summer is inevitably running the risk of him blossoming at another club after regaining his fitness and playing for a side not struggling to even enter the opposition's half. After all, if El Tigre rediscovers his former self, he's an asset to every side on the planet. On the other hand, paying silly money for an aging misfit hardly seems the brightest idea either, and stats later in this blog will prove him unlikely to face his peak in the future. Personally I'd let him go, as he (in spite of limited supply) has been unable to do what he is paid to, and his peak seemingly was hit in the past.
Radamel Falcao fyller 29 år imorgen. pic.twitter.com/DqnS0Vz6Kz— Christoffer Johansen (@bojochris) February 9, 2015
(Please note that Falcao's one non-penalty goal at Monaco in 14/15 is included in the 13/14 numbers, to sort the Monaco numbers apart from the United ones.)
The dying Dutchman
His striking comrade, Robin van Persie, is in my opinion a concern as well. It's easy to say that Van Persie was the man who brought league title number twenty to Matt Busby Way and leave it at that, but the Feyenoord academy product signed a contract for four years, not one. After his scintillating opening campaign, the world class striker has only appeared in patches, whilst being regularly offloaded by some pedestrian, overpaid and fairly average version of himself.
In the title-winning campaign of 2012/13, the former Arsenal skipper seemed genuinely craving to win the league, chasing every ball like the title was on stake at that particular situation, but his appearance and hunger have apparently faded. With his injury record in mind, as well as the weekly £250,000 he cashes in and the apparent lack of motivation after picking up his desired league winner's medal, the 31-year old hardly seems the future for Manchester United. At the dawn of next season, he has turned 32.
Additionally, his contract (as mentioned) expires in 2016. That means there are basically two options for United in the summer. Extend his deal or cash in through a transfer. Unless the manager wants to see him go for free, obviously. And personally, I can't see a club willing to pay this amount of money for an aging, injury-prone player past his peak, let alone added to a transfer fee.
Midfield Rooney rampage reluctant
Then what about Rooney? Firstly, he is not a midfielder, let alone a new Paul Scholes. Rooney should be played up-front, either as a poacher or just off one. His short passing isn't up to a United midfielder's standards and he disappears for huge parts of games. Additionally, he doesn't understand the game as a midfielder, which has crucial impact on his movement. As an attacking midfielder he's got the opportunity to roam around more, with all his defensive contributions counting on the positive note, like some sort of a bonus for the side. As a central midfielder, defending is one of the things he's supposed to do, and when he's all over the place, the side is suffering.
The most important aspect is nonetheless his finishing, which is the soil of his career. Finding the target is what Wayne Rooney does best, and when he's stuck in midfield, he'll be on the receiving end of potential assists less, which means he scores less goals. This is not rocket science.
Nonetheless, despite Rooney being two years younger than Van Persie (and six months older than Falcao), he is soon to become a victim of the age monster as well, particularly with his lifestyle and body type in mind. I'd be hesitant to offload him though, at least for a couple of seasons. The Croxteth born scouser hasn't suffered the apparent drop of motivation like the Dutchman, nor the long-term injury of the Colombian, so despite he's not the long-term future, at least he is still able to do a job for some time. If he's being played up-front, that is.
Currently, he takes more than he gives, and apparently he's just being picked at midfield just because of the band around his arm. Even Van Gaal admitted that "only the captain has more privileges" on a press conference recently. That's a problem right there, when the manager picks the captain rather than the best player (Herrera or eventually Juan Mata) suited for a particular position.
In other words, neither Falcao nor Van Persie appear like the future solution. Letting the former go is slightly risky and getting a fee for the latter is tricky. Neither deliver at the level they have done in the past. Which brings it down to the core of the problem: United are stuck with two past-it world class strikers who are unable to display their capacity, and sacrifice a third world class striker and a midfielder (Herrera) because of it. On the positive note, letting them go cheaply or for free will make vast space for a new signing on the pay roll.
As back-up, United have James Wilson, who is still struggling to make the cut into the Premier League. For the U18s and U21s he has been able to carry the ball into dangerous positions by himself, but at first team level he's more like a poacher waiting like a poisonous cobra for the right moment to strike. And he hasn't even struck that well, sadly. Generally, I think he's too limited to be anything more than a fringe player for United. A club wanting to challenge for the title needs strikers who can create for others, as well as banging them in on the crucial moments, and the creating part seems like out of Willo's reach.
The point of no return
In other words, United currently don't have proper back-up for the misfitted, underperforming strikers, and both of them and Rooney are soon to enter a point of no return in their respective careers. Just have a look at this:
Robin Van Persie fyller 31 år idag. Få spillere holder toppnivå etter 31 år. Kan bare håpe han blir ett av få unntak. pic.twitter.com/AGUVLDxgmW— Christoffer Johansen (@bojochris) August 6, 2014
Christoffer Johansen's tweet from August 2014 reads like the following: "Robin van Persie is turning 31 years today. Few players remain on the top after 31. Let's hope he'll be an exception." The graph shows the age brackets of players who started the 1/8-finals for their countries in the most recent World Cup. The sudden decline at 30/31 is hanging like a massive shadow over all three of United's top strikers.
Additionally, in Van Persie's particular case, there are even more stats undermining his future both as a footballer and a United player. This stat, from october, is describing his record of non-penalty league goals over the past seasons. Not exactly what anybody with sympathies for Van Persie and/or United will like to see.
Robin Van Persie: Non-penalty PL goals trend pic.twitter.com/eluTAS3kyU— Christoffer Johansen (@bojochris) October 7, 2014
Tactics and transfers
The obvious short-term solution would've been a tactical adjustment, to play Rooney up-front, as he generally performs with whichever striking partner he's paired alongside. From Ruud van Nistelrooy, via Louis Saha, to Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernández, Rooney has generally delivered the goods. This would've left space for the ball-playing actual midfielder Ander Herrera in midfield, enlightening the path to better supply to the strikers, as well as a fair chance of the striking duo improving as a unit. Sadly, the manager doesn't have the courage to drop the names up-front for a more «balanced» side. And if he doesn't have the courage to drop them for individual games, will he have the couage to offload them at the right time?
In my opinion, the long-term solutions will be transfers. Both in and out. United can't afford to have underperforming, overpaid has-beens around, but replacing them with required quality will obviously appear as a massive task as well. Particularly if you look at United's transfer record post 2009, as there barely has been a single outfield player who has improved to or maintained world class level after signing for United since that summer.
The fraudulent Van Gaal
There are probably more questions than answers around, but nonetheless Van Gaal certainly has to find a way out of this sticky spider web. It seems unlikely that United will be able to keep up with the best teams like Manchester City and Chelsea domestically with Van Persie, Rooney and/or Falcao up-front for much longer, as the club already has fallen behind. Or eventually, Van Gaal could keep going with a striking duo that doesn't work, misfitting a striker into a midfield role and see his side keep going with pedestrian football stripped from flair and excitement, and being on the verge of unwatchable. But as that's what he's currently is doing, I understand that he finds more excitement in the apparent season-long scrabble showdown against Ryan Giggs, going on in the dugout during every game and preventing either from actually standing up to shout a few words towards what's going on in front of them.