Radamel Falcao is without doubt one of the world’s top strikers, up there with Robin van Persie, Neymar, Robert Lewandowski and Karim Benzema. With his rise comes the inevitable speculation that he will move to a bigger club. In particular, Chelsea have been noisily throwing about their interest in the player, who they seem keen to bring to the club in January.
But would Falcao fit in well at Stamford Bridge? He would surely be a formidable Premier League striker and his quality is without question. The main question would be over finding a good tactical position for him in this Chelsea team. That may not be as easy as it would appear on paper.
Falcao plays best with his front to goal, attacking balls played into space in front of him, or being played through behind the last defender. That would seem a perfect fit with Chelsea’s creative trio of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata.
However, that works at its best when a team is counter attacking. The Europa League final last year was a perfect illustration of how Falcao thrives best. Athletic Bilbao love to press high and play in their opponents’ half, in line with Marcelo Bielsa’s philosophy. The result was that when they lost the ball against Atletico Madrid, their opponents could break quickly and find their Colombian forward in space, and his deadly movement and finishing did for Bilbao.
Where Falcao is not quite as good, is with his back to goal. He is physically strong, but he is not inclined to drop back and play a part in build up play, which is a key feature of a team who play a 4-2-3-1 system. The tendency to play with one centre forward in the Premier League has led to the use of more all round centre forwards, equally as capable holding the ball up, drawing defenders and playing slide rule passes as getting on the end of throughballs and crosses to thump the ball in the net.
Falcao is not that type of player. And whilst he has played in a similar system at Atletico, who also use a kind of 4-2-3-1, their midfield is more direct than Chelsea’s. Adrian Lopez is a converted striker who cuts in from the wing, whilst Arda Turan is a skilful but direct winger. Both look to go straight for goal, and are less inclined to cut inside and play an extra pass, as one of Chelsea’s trio do. Adrian in particular looks to play as a second striker when his team are on the front foot, as is his nature.
Without direct runners from attacking midfield, a Falcao shaped Chelsea forward line could easily become detached from team play when di Matteo’s men are not breaking at pace. Faced with a packed defence, as many teams will use against them, Chelsea would probably ironically benefit more from Fernando Torres. The maligned Spaniard may still not be able to rediscover his old goalscoring form, but his physical presence and link up play is excellent. Even if he is not getting the best out of himself, Torres does get more out of his team mates. That is what a centre forward in a 4-2-3-1 needs to do when the team is on the front foot and trying to break down a massed defence. Falcao may not be the right answer.
The pursuit of the Colombian fits in with Roman Abramovich’s previous recruitment strategy. Find a talented player, buy him – leave the tactics to the manager. Yet the reason why managers usually identify transfer targets in conjunction with the board, or on their own, is because they understand tactically how their team plays and what type of player they need. Abramovich, who bought Chelsea only a year after falling in love with the game, would appear not to possess the understanding tactically of team shape and structure that the managers he hires and fires so quickly do. Therefore his interference in team recruitment is counter productive. That led him to sign Torres and press his inclusion alongside Didier Drogba. Anyone with half a tactical brain could see before they played together for the first time why it would not work – both like to play centrally and avoid drifting out wide, and in a team who tend to play narrowly, as Chelsea do, they were always going to get in each other’s way more than they were complementary together.
Falcao may be one of the world’s best forwards, but football is not that simple. Chelsea’s scattergun approach is reminiscent of a 15 year old playing Football Manager. Football is more complicated than that, tactics more nuanced. Whether Falcao is the answer to Chelsea's particular question remains to be seen.