Friday, July 03, 2015

Strike it lucky: Falcao and the curse of the No.9 shirt

While there are weightier issues in the world today, the one troubling me the most is the arrival of Radamel Falcao to Chelsea on a season-long loan. Because despite Chelsea's assertion that it has signed "one of Europe’s most feared strikers", recent evidence has suggested otherwise.

And we've been there before. In fact we've been there for an awful long time: the search for a potent striker, capable of banging 'em in week-in, week-out, over more than one season.

In Diego Costa, Chelsea more or less found one, but then injury and temperament conspired last term to render him more out than in during the season's final third. But with Didier Drogba on his last legs and now gone, and Loic Remy seemingly unable to convince José Mourinho that he is Costa's nailed-on understudy (or the possibility to be a strike partner in a resolutely 4-3-3-1 system), Chelsea's seemingly constant search for striking options has continued.

Despite promising options in the youth and reserve squads (Dominic Solanke and loanee Patrick Bamford - who excelled for Middlesbrough last season), Chelsea's pursuit of Falcao has seemingly gone against the grain of both conventional wisdom and the club's own commitments to financial fair play, given that his extremely expensive loan from Monaco to Manchester United last season (£6 million loan fee, £285,000 a week in wages plus bonuses) resulted in just 26 Premier League appearances and only four goals (with none further for five months).


Mourinho has said he would be able to get the best out of Falcao: "It hurts me that people in England think that the real Falcao is the one we saw at Manchester United. If I can help Falcao reach his level again, I will do it". But it shouldn't be forgotten how that was also the task that Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Di Matteo, Rafa Benítez and indeed Mourinho were all challenged to do with Fernando Torres, that dormant Sleeping Beauty who spent three and half seasons failing to deliver any return on the £50 million Chelsea paid for him on reputation (even if Mourinho somewhat jokingly - and desperately - described him as "not really" being worth £50 million - "maybe it is twenty and a half").

Torres wasn't Chelsea's first expensive striker flop, of course: step forward Andrei Schevchenko. Relentlessly pursued by Roman Abramovich as he tried to turn Chelsea into Milan - and therefore champions of Europe at the beginning of his ownership of the club, the Ukrainian never recreated the form that made him fifth top goalscorer of all time in all European competitions, a position he still holds. And after Schevchenko there was Argentinian wunderkind Franco Di Santo, who didn't even score once for the club.

Then there was Chris Sutton, bought from Blackburn on the back of their relegation and a record of 50 goals in 131 appearances, he only managed one goal in 28 Premier League appearances for the Blues. In Pierluigi Casiraghi, Chelsea signed some Monza-born Italian class, only for it to be bruised by a lack of goals ( and then brutally ruptured by a cruciate ligament injury following a collision with West Ham's then-keeper Shaka Hislop. Chelsea's run continued with Adrian Mutu, one of the first major signings of the Abramovich era, which turned out to be a disaster, with the Romanian falling out with Mourinho, and then failing a drugs test for cocaine. In the same period, Hernan Crespo looked like being another addition of European pedigree...only to find him surplus to requirements when Didier Drogba came along.

At a time when Abramovich and Mourinho seemed to be buying strikers wholesale from Costco, the next to arrive was Mateja Kezman, himself on the back of a successful three years at PSV Eindhoven. Needless to say, the move to Chelsea proved less than successful: seven goals from 40 appearances, despite the reignition of his successful Eindhoven partnership with the gravitationally-challenged Arjen Robben.

Go back further, to the time when that scurrilous old rogue Ken Bates was in charge, and the club broke its then record for a transfer fee by bringing in Scotsman Robert Fleck, just before the start of the inaugural Premier League season (prior to signing for Chelsea he'd threatened to go on strike at Norwich over their refusal to accept the London club's offer). In the end, Fleck scored just four times out of 48 appearances, and didn't even figure in the squad for the disastrous 1994 FA Cup Final, a 4-0 rout by Manchester United that I am still bitter about 21 years on (yes, David Elleray, you are the source of that...).

One might even be tempted to suggest that the centre-forward role at Chelsea is cursed. Even Kerry Dixon - the club's third highest goalscorer of all time (and, to date, only player ever to resemble the two blokes in Bucks Fizz) - has just been jailed for nine months for assaulting a pub customer who called him "fatty". Signing for Chelsea as its principle striker appears to be as safe as getting hired by Spinal Tap as its drummer.

Even with pre-season rumours of Diego Costa being unsettled, bringing in Radamel Falcao on loan from Monaco represents a huge gamble by Chelsea. The player was, quite simply, a massive mistake last season at Manchester United - and it serves them right for having the hubris to go out and throw money at their previous management's problems - and to add to it, his enormous wage bill only served to inflate a reputation that wasn't, quite simply, worth it.

Though financial details have been revealed, I can't imagine Chelsea, with its own huge wage bill, will accept anywhere near the amount Manchester United agreed for Falcao, who is probably lucky to be playing anywhere at the apex of European football at the moment.

It is, however, not just about the money. Or even about the money at all. I've lost interest in the what-players-earn debate, because it extended beyond the bounds of reality a long time ago. What concerns me more is that Falcao joined United last season as a key part of Louis van Gaal's much-vaunted rejuvenation of the club, only scoring four golas and completing a full 90 minutes on just six occasions. That, under a no-nonsense manager like van Gaal speaks volumes.

At Chelsea, with Mourinho's sometimes capricious approach to player selections (he didn't even start with a recognised striker against Arsenal back in April), there is no guarantee that Falcao will get the opportunity to play at all, even without Costa maintaining his fitness and discipline next season.

Chelsea long ago dispensed with the 4-4-2 formation, which means that any second striker - whether expensive European bauble or home-grown whizkid - will have to sit out their frustration on the bench. Should Loic Remy exercise his over a lack of appearances - plus, now, Falcao coming in - by moving on, Chelsea will still have the headache of finding another understudy for Costa prepared for little immediate chance of competitive playing time. And that might put off the likes of Charlie Austin and Christian Benteke, who are said to be in Mourinho's sights.

For now we wait with bated breath as Falcao is sized up for his No.9 shirt. Expect it to have extra padding in the shoulder area, just to absorb the weight of expectation...

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