Atletico Madrid pulled off a bit of a transfer coup last week when they broke their transfer record to sign prolific Colombian striker Radamel Falcao Garcia from FC Porto for the grand sum of €40million.
A superb record of 72 goals in 87 games (a rate of a goal every 1.21 games) in two seasons at Porto suggests that Atletico have used the money raised from the sale of Sergio Aguero to Manchester City wisely. But history indicates that Falcao only thrives in certain setups and Atletico coach Gregorio Manzano would be advised to take heed of this when deciding upon his tactics for next season.
The Best of Falcao
Falcao’s superb record at Porto suggests Manzano should look to their tactics if he wants to get the best out of his expensive new striker.
Porto played a 4-3-3 formation in both of Falcao’s seasons at the club, prioritising quick movement of the ball through midfield to Falcao or one of the two wide forwards.
One or other of the wide forwards, usually Hulk and Varela, was always in close contact with Falcao, while a midfield runner – Belluschi or Guarin depending on who started – was also never too far away. This is important to getting the best out of Falcao, as he is far happier surrounded by players to quickly link with than he is trying to hold up the ball with his back to goal while he waits for support.
His main aim is to get himself facing the goal, because that is where he does his damage.
In Falcao’s second season at the club, under the tutelage of Andre Villas Boas, Porto played a highly aggressive game, winning the ball back higher up the field than under the previous coach Jesualdo Ferreira. Again, this played to Falcao’s strengths, as he could get involved in quick, one or two touch interchanges with plenty of support options around him.
But enough with general play – it is goals that Atletico have bought Falcao for. Last season he managed a staggering 38 in 42 appearances for Porto in all competitions. That every single one of those goals was scored from inside the penalty area should be some indication as to where his strengths lie.
Penalty area movement is high on the list of Falcao’s attributes and this is born out by the fact that 21 of his goals came from crosses into the area, while a further 5 came from reacting quickest to rebounds inside the area. Of those 21 goals from crosses, 11 were finished with his head; 10 with his feet.
Falcao is a prodigious header of the ball with a fantastic leap and the ability to accurately aim his headers, but he is also a very capable finisher from low or medium height balls played into the area from wide areas, half-volleying home on a regular basis. Porto’s wide men or midfield runners often get into advanced positions wide of the penalty area but far in from the touchline where they are able to play precise balls into the area. This, combined with Falcao’s superb penalty area movement, equals goals galore.
So this should be something Atletico look to exploit if they hope to get the best goal return from their new striker. With players such as Jose Antonio Reyes and the newly signed Arda Turan in their ranks, they have the necessary personnel to provide the sort of service that Falcao has become accustomed to, and thrived on, at Porto. Their Brazilian full-back Filipe Luis is also capable of the sort of deliveries that saw his Porto counterpart Alvaro Pereira provide six assists for Falcao last season.
At international level Falcao has struggled to recreate his Porto form – more on that later – but the few matches in which he has appeared comfortable in the yellow of the Colombian national team are when they have taken a more Porto like approach, as against Argentina in the 2011 Copa America.
Colombia had a clear strategy in this match: soak up the Argentine pressure and then break quickly through midfield to the forwards. This manifested itself as follows: Sanchez, upon winning possession, would get the ball to Aguilar within one or two touches, who would then play it on accurately to Guarin, Moreno, Ramos, or directly into Falcao.
Whenever Falcao received the ball in this manner, he had Guarin, Moreno or Ramos in close contact and was able to lay the ball off quickly and intelligently to keep the counter-attack moving.
He didn’t get any clear cut sights at goal himself, but Colombia’s strategy was highly effective, and were it not for some bad luck, poor finishing and superb goalkeeping from Romero in the Argentine goal, they could easily have taken all three points from a match that eventually ended 0-0.
Falcao did score twice against Bolivia in the final group match when Colombia used a similar strategy, aided by scoring an early goal against a team that needed a win to progress to the knock out stages.
The Worst of Falcao
As alluded to above, good performances for the Colombian national team have been few and far between for Falcao since he made his international debut in 2007. He has scored 9 goals in 31 appearances for the national team, a figure far below his Porto statistics simply because they have usually played in a manner that is unsuited to his attributes.
Two cases in point came at the 2011 Copa America. In Colombia’s first match of the tournament they were firm favourites against a Costa Rican U-23 squad, but struggled to break down their opponents, who sat deep and limited the space they had to work in. Whenever Falcao did receive the ball in to feet, he was forced to try and hold up it up while he waited for support to arrive. This is not one of Falcao’s strengths – he is unable to provide a platform for his team to build attacks from in this manner.
Colombia scraped through that encounter with a 1-0 victory, but they, and Falcao, struggled once more when they were eliminated by Peru in the quarter finals.
Peru man-marked Guarin and Aguilar, two players key to the fine counter-attacking Colombia had displayed against Argentina and Bolivia in the two matches previous, but were happy to cede space to Sanchez. A fine defensive midfielder, but not one blessed with an extensive passing range, Sanchez had little option but to play the ball sideways to the two full-backs and hope they would be more effective at launching attacks.
With both midfield wide-men finding it difficult to make space to receive passes, the full-backs looked to play the ball directly into Falcao. With other options cut off, Peru’s central defenders were able to anticipate this avenue of attack and step in front of him to intercept on a number of occasions.
When Falcao did receive the ball, it was again clear that hold up play with his back to goal is not his forte, and he was unable to get the ball to stick long enough to bring others into play. Unlike his Peruvian counterpart Paolo Guerrero, Falcao is not the sort of striker who thrives in this kind of situation, and Atletico would be advised not to expect this of him in the coming La Liga season.
Before he moved to Porto, Falcao plied his trade in Argentina with River Plate. He began his professional career superbly with seven goals in his first seven appearances before suffering a anterior cruciate ligament injury in January 2006 pre-season, which he struggled to recover from fully until the end of the 2006-07 campaign.
In the two seasons following his full return from injury, Falcao scored 35 goals in 74 games – a rate of a goal every 2.11 games – a highly respectable figure, but some way below what he would go on to achieve at Porto.
Again, this disparity in figures is largely down to style of play. River, in the best Argentine tradition, tend to prefer a slower, more methodical build-up, which again involved Falcao often receiving the ball with his back to the play without an immediate player to lay it off to and turn forwards.
This was not so much the case under Diego Simeone, with whom they won the 2008 Clausura, as he preferred a quicker, more ‘European’ tempo. However, Falcao often played a little deeper in Simeone’s 4-2-3-1 system, giving him players to associate with, but placing him further away from goal.
Based on previous evidence it is clear that Falcao thrives in teams that play high-tempo, attacking or counter-attacking football and who look to get forward in wide areas and deliver accurate crosses into the area. His penalty area movement is superb and he links well with one or two touches when he has players close by him to facilitate this.
He struggles when asked to play in teams that prefer a slower build-up of play through midfield, as it is much harder to get into positions where he is facing goal and able to do damage. Playing the ball into him with his back to goal and expecting him to hold up play while he waits for support is definitely not the way to get the best out of him.