When news broke in January 2014 that Colombian star Radamel Falcao had picked up a serious knee injury playing for club team, AS Monaco, an entire nation held its breath… with one notable exception. While Colombia and the wider soccer world was left to lament a World Cup without arguably the game’s best out-and-out center-forward, coach José Pékerman could have been forgiven for feeling a certain sense of relief.
On the surface, it was a huge blow. Los Cafeteros had just secured its first trip to a World Cup in 16 years during a qualification campaign that saw it hammer defending South American champion Uruguay 4-0, pick off Chile 3-1 in Santiago, and become just one of two sides to prevail at the dizzy heights of La Paz. Expectations were at their highest since Carlos Valderrama led his 1994 side to the United States with realistic aspirations of becoming world champions.
Falcao hit nine goals in qualifying, a total bettered on CONMEBOL qualifying only by Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez. His strikes had directly earned Pékerman six points, without which Colombia would not have qualified.
But despite his form, Falcao had become a problem. In March 2013, Colombia had travelled to Venezuela with Pékerman desperate to find more balance in midfield in order to unshackle the likes of Juan Cuadrado and James Rodríguez. It didn’t work. The tweak to a 4-2-3-1 formation saw Colombia go down, 1-0. That appears to be the night Pékerman decided Falcao could not be deployed as a lone striker.
Colombia won just two of its next five qualifiers in which Falcao played, both arriving when he was paired with a forward, Teo Gutierrez, who could drop into midfield as well as help build play down the flanks. At the 2014 World Cup, with Falcao on the sidelines, we saw a Colombia transformed with Teo leading a fluid offense that afforded more protection and space for James, who went on to become the tournament’s top scorer.
Last week, Colombia opened the Copa América back where the Falcao problem first surfaced, once again going down to Venezuela. Carlos Bacca, coming off a 28-goal season with Sevilla, partnered him in a flat, broken 4-4-2 which left the limited passing of midfield duo Carlos Sánchez and Edwin Valencia brutally exposed.
The stars of Colombia’s World Cup, James and Cuadrado, were marginalized, and the team’s two forwards became isolated. With Teo starting on the bench, Falcao proved unable to perform the linking role which is so vital to the team’s system. Not a single player who completed the 90 minutes took fewer than Falcao’s 28 touches, while nobody for Colombia attempted fewer than his 18 passes. Colombia was a shadow of its World Cup self, only looking anything like its previous best when Bacca was withdrawn for Teo.
It’s hard to imagine Colombia’s changes were anything other than an accommodation for Falcao, who had shown signs of rediscovering his form by scoring five goals in five friendlies following a disastrous season with Manchester United. In the team’s latest Copa match against Brazil, Pékerman performed something of a U-turn after elusive suggestions he wouldn’t shuffle his pack. He dropped Bacca for Teo, returned to a 4-2-3-1 formation and saw his team deservedly beat the team that ended its World Cup last summer.
Cuadrado and James were given their freedom. Teo buzzed around, creating space, linking the play and upping the tempo. Sánchez became colossal, ridding himself of any technical burden to concentrate solely on forcing Neymar out to the periphery.
“Teo changed everything,” said local paper El Tiempo. Pékerman agreed: “There was only one change but it was crucial.”
Colombia were transformed, but Falcao was not. His presence once again served only to create problems. His movement was poor, and an increasing desperation to prove his worth evident when he led a counter-attack only to ignore his supporting cast. The chance ended when he tamely lofted a weak shot high over the bar.
Injury has clearly had a major impact on a once devastating forward we challenge Lionel Messi and Cristano Ronaldo’s duopoly as Spain’s top scorer. But the man who could still be Copa América’s best no. 9 arrived at this summer’s tournament in the worst shape, and it’s difficult to see Colombia recapturing 2014’s scintillating form with him in the starting lineup. Tournament soccer is notoriously unforgiving, and with all of Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela tied with three points in Group C with one round remaining, Colombia has no room for error when it faces a Peru side that has thus far exceeded expectations.
Falcao is too talented to be written off. And some of the criticism he’s faced this week has probably been a little harsh. But regardless of form, it seems his attributes aren’t compatible with the system required to get the best out of his team. And with no injury to make the decision for him, Pékerman has a tricky problem to address.