Radamel Falcao and Why He's Back to his Best After the Premier League Lost Years

Andy Brassell@@andybrassellFeatured ColumnistSeptember 26, 2017

Radamel Falcao celebrates after scoring at Lille on Friday.
Radamel Falcao celebrates after scoring at Lille on Friday.Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

On a clear Friday night in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, it was almost as if the summer never happened. Ligue 1 champions AS Monaco swept aside Marcelo Bielsa's Lille OSC with a practised, deadly efficiency of the kind that became more and more familiar as their glorious title-winning season unfolded.

There has, of course, been plenty of upheaval in the interim; exits, rumours, contract talks, eye-popping bids and goodbyes they hoped wouldn't happen. Yet in Lille's Stade Pierre Mauroy, all those furrowed brows faded to nothing—with one constant from the previous campaign present and correct.

When Radamel Falcao signed for Monaco in May 2013, it was a different era at the club, when owner Dmitry Rybolovlev was assembling a galaxy of stars in plain confrontation to Paris Saint-Germain.

It was before the dual implications of financial fair play and the owner's costly divorce changed the approach of Rybolovlev and the club.

The club's ethos and fortunes have been turned upside down in those four years, and the same is true of the player anointed the flagship of the time, alongside other feted arrivals, including James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho.

Received wisdom is that Falcao's path was incontrovertibly altered by his injury in January 2014, when the cruciate knee ligament suffered in a Coupe de France match against amateurs Chasselay torpedoed his season and ultimately—heartbreakingly—his World Cup.

Falcao lies injured after a heavy challenge against the amateurs of Chasselay
Falcao lies injured after a heavy challenge against the amateurs of ChasselayPHILIPPE MERLE/Getty Images

In some ways, his next movement from there wouldn’t have been an entirely unexpected one even if the injury had never happened.

The transfer to Manchester United was structured according to safeguards that kept his recovery in mind, but the destination was not so incongruous. United, or his next stop Chelseaalong with another mooted landing spot in Real Madridwould have seemed natural places for a fully fit, firing Falcao to end up.

That his progress in European football shuddered to a halt during those two years of frustration in England was widely taken as evidence that one of the most—if not the most—exciting No. 9s in the world had ceased to be a going concern. This view had little basis in concrete evidence. How could it have?

Falcao started a grand total of 15 Premier League matches during two seasons in England—14 for United, and just one for Chelsea.

If it was clear before he left Monaco that he had jeopardised his future by pushing for his impossible dream of making the World Cup in Brazil, playing warm-up matches for Colombia barely four months after such a major injury, then the full extent of that gamble was only intensified by making the move so soon afterwards.

It was something that Leonardo Jardim, his current coach, addressed with some candour last October.

"Falcao's problem," he said in a press conference at Monaco's La Turbie base, per France Football, "wasn't just his knee injury, but the fact that he went and played two seasons elsewhere, in Manchester, then Chelsea."

Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim thinks Falcao's spell in England did him few favours
Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim thinks Falcao's spell in England did him few favoursAlex Morton/Getty Images

"He tried to carry on playing at a high level," Jardim continued, "even though normally, when you have an injury like that, you stay at your club to try and come back more quickly. It's not easy to recuperate and to play at the same time." Especially not while adapting to the Premier League and its particular physical demands.

We'll never know whether Falcao could have really adapted, of course, because we don't have a big enough sample size. He simply didn't play enough.

At some point, in an advanced stage of the recuperation Jardim describes, a player has to see regular action to arrive at 100 per cent. That never happened for Falcao, and it was never likely to at a club such as United or Chelsea.

Even last year, he was still looking for that rhythm. Earlier in that same press conference last autumn, Jardim was expressing his frustration that Falcao wasn't there yet, having damaged a hamstring in UEFA Champions League qualifying against Fenerbahce, and then having been concussed in the September defeat at OGC Nice.

"He'll find his best level again," Jardim said, "as he plays matches again and again." Bear in mind, this was less than a year ago. Luckily for player and club, Monaco had the squad to cover, with goals coming from all over the park.

At that point when Jardim was voicing his hope for more from the centre-forward, 13 different players had scored for the team in Ligue 1 action, just over two months into the season.

Falcao has had the room to breathe, on and off the pitch, which has allowed him to ascend all the way back to his best, and it's this sense of well-being that led him to extend his contract in the summer to 2020, even on lower wages.

After ending up with a laudable 21 goals in 22 Ligue 1 starts last season, he has thrived on being relied upon even more this term, post-Kylian Mbappe and Valere Germain.

His two against Lille on Friday night—one from close range and the other a penalty, buried with real relish— took him to 11 in seven matches so far. He has scored from 11 of his 12 shots on target in the league, with Metz's Thomas Didillon the only goalkeeper to have stopped one of El Tigre's efforts this term.

It's the best goalscoring start a player has made to a Ligue 1 season since his fellow South American, Carlos Bianchi, scored 12 in his first seven of the season for Reims in 1974-75, per Yahoo France.

Jardim deserves a lot of the credit. He's a coach who seeks to use his players in a system that best suits their individual qualities, and by rerouting Monaco into a 4-4-2 (a system, incidentally, that his predecessor, Claudio Ranieri, began to think Falcao didn't suit), he has acknowledged that the Colombian has evolved since his heyday up top alone at FC Porto and Atletico Madrid, running the channels less and concentrating on patrolling the penalty area.

Now, he has an even more advanced foil next to him. Germain was an admirable servant to the club, but the newly arrived Stevan Jovetic is a step up. Both players play more for Falcao, rather than around him, as Mbappe tended to.

It's a satisfying turn of events that Falcao should be back to his best going into this week's Champions League confrontation against former club Porto, his first meeting with them since leaving the Estadio do Dragao.

For Bielsa, whose heralded Athletic Bilbao were blown away by Falcao in Atletico's Europa League final victory in Bucharest in 2012, this was all too familiar.

This is Falcao as we know him best.

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