So many riches earned, so little return delivered. Manchester United’s three premier strikers – Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao – cost the club some £60 million in transfer and loan fees combined. Old Trafford’s bean counters will add £43 million to that bill in the now very unlikely event that the Colombian signs permanently next summer. Factor in £830,000 per week – or more than £40 million per season – the club spends on wages between to the lavishly paid trio and United continues to make a stupendous outlay for a hugely disappointing campaign.
The raw numbers tell at least part of story behind United’s failed attack this season. Van Persie has 10 goals and two assists in 26 appearances across all competitions; Rooney nine and four in 25; and Falcao four and four in 19. If United’s ever-changing tactical shape is of little help to the trio, then nor does any lay claim to personal excellence either. The Englishman’s shot accuracy, for example, is just 50 per cent this season, with Van Persie only three percentage points better and Falcao accurate from 63 per cent of shots taken. None compares favourably to Premier League top goalscorer Diego Costa, who has 17 league goals at a 71 per cent shooting accuracy.
Dig a little deeper and the trio has contributed too little to United’s attack beyond the combined 23 goals and 10 assists this season. Rooney has created a touch over 30 chances over the campaign, with the Englishman most frequently deployed at ’10’ or in an attacking central midfield role. It reflects even more poorly on Rooney that the 29-year-old fails to make the top 20 best passers by accuracy at United let alone in the country.
Van Persie and Falcao fare no better on the creative front. The Dutchman has fostered 23 opportunities this season and Falcao just 13. Neither is heavily involved in United’s build-up either – Van Persie averages just over 20 passes per game; Falcao less than that.
Beyond the numbers neither Van Persie and Falcao, nor Saturday’s pairing of the Dutchman and Rooney, have developed any real understanding. Rooney passed to Van Persie just six times during United’s 2-1 defeat in Wales; the former Arsenal forward returned the compliment on three occasions. Nine passes from a total of 581 United made on the day. It was just seven in total between Falcao and Van Persie when United beat Burnley 3-1 at Old Trafford last week. None of it speaks well of three supposedly world-class forwards that form the backbone of United’s broken strikeforce.
Of the trio only Rooney is guaranteed a place at the club next season – and that has far less to do with the Englishman’s performances over the past eight months than his perpetual status at the club. As a striker the Englishman’s output has declined in recent seasons. The former Evertonian scored 19 and made 17 assists under David Moyes; it was 16 and 13 two years ago; and 35 and five when Rooney was deployed up-front for the campaign in 2011/12.
In midfield Rooney has routinely disappointed, in part with average distribution, but mostly with an apparent inability to adapt to the ebb and flow of United’s game. It is not often, if ever, that United’s third highest record goalscorer controls a match from the centre of the park, with the player demonstrating an unnerving ability to resort to the ‘Hollywood Ball’ when in possession. It is an observation that is all-the-more frustrating for Ander Herrera’s frequent exclusion this season.
Van Persie, meanwhile, is in the midst of a 18-month-long slump. There was a short period over Christmas, a mini burst if you will, when the Dutchman scored five in four games. There have been just two goals in the past nine matches; one of those a penalty.
Indeed, the Dutchman’s performance in south Wales ranks among his least effective for the club. Of Van Persie’s seven attempts at goal only one hit the target, while the striker touched the ball on just 23 further occasions. The evidence suggests a permanent decline even if Van Persie recovers quickly from an ankle injury suffered at the Liberty Stadium.
Then there is Falcao. The Colombian remains a striker of rare pedigree, but one who is fundamentally struggling to recover from a second knee injury of the most devastating kind. Few begrudge the Colombian a little time in a season that has itself been disrupted by less serious injury, but eight months into a year-long loan at the club there is scant evidence that Falcao is the player of lore.
It is not even as if the 29-year-old’s goals this season – all four of them – have come against top class opposition either: Falcao scored against Everton, Aston Villa, Stoke City and Leicester City. His omission from Saturday’s line-up may well be the precursor to more frequent exclusion as the season winds down. The performances hardly merite special treatment. And whatever agent Jorge Mendes’ proclamation to the contrary, few of Europe’s top clubs will be prepared to pay the €55 million fee Monaco is seeking for the forward next summer.
Little wonder United ranks just fourth in the Premier League for goals scored this season despite the lavish expenditure on a clutch of strikers. It is, after all, some 12 goals behind rivals Chelsea and Manchester City. These are striking numbers.
Indeed, United’s failure at Swansea City on Saturday can be attributed, in part at least, to the profligacy of the team’s forward line. Van Gaal was moved to declare United unlucky in defeat, with the Reds securing a healthy proportion of possession, while the team created 18 chances. Perhaps the key statistic is this however: the visitors managed just three shots on target. It is the story of the season rather than a one-off observation. United ranks just eighth in the Premier League for shots-per-game and seventh for shots-on-target.
Yet, with a nod to those who have an eye for defending United’s errant forwards, Van Gaal’s team ranks just eighth in key-passes-per game, ninth in dribbles-per-game and 16th in fouls-against-per-game. If the forward line is under-performing then there is little attacking foundation elsewhere in the team. Angel di Maria suffered yet another anonymous game at the Liberty Stadium, while fellow creative talents Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj started the game on the bench.
Yet, while United enjoyed a positive spell for 30 minutes after the break, and possession translated into chances created, none were taken. And when it came to the crux, with the Reds chasing an equaliser deep into the game, Van Gaal’s men resorted to agricultural tactics rather than trusting that creative talent might fashion a chance. The Reds launched 50 long passes forward against Swansea – 12 of them coming after Bafétimbi Gomis scored Swansea’s second. It was truly desperate stuff.
Crucially, in the short-term there is little sign that either Falcao or Van Persie will hit a run of form. If may well cost United a place in the Champions League next season. Neither is likely to benefit if United’s Dutch manager continues to rely on the long ball.
Over the longer piece few will brook argument with the observation that Van Gaal should enter the market for one, if not more, new strikers next summer.