Here is why Manchester United is taking a risk with Falcao


(AFP PHOTO)

The shock move of the transfer deadline was reported early yesterday, when Manchester United stepped up its pursuit of Monaco forward Falcao on a very expensive loan deal. Falcao’s salary stands at about $30 million per year, and United paid on top of that a $10 million fee to Monaco to take the Colombian striker on loan. This is the most expensive player in England. What can United expect to get for their investment?

The answer offered in the media yesterday was goals. Falcao scored 52 goals in 68 league matches with Atletico Madrid from 2011 to 2013. He was sold for a massive fee to Monaco last summer, and he scored nine goals in 17 matches there before going down to a knee injury. He has netted twice in three matches early in the Ligue 1 season so far. These look like the numbers of an elite forward, but they do not entirely stand up to scrutiny.

The problem is that Falcao takes penalty kicks. His numbers are inflated by a large number of discretionary goals. In his huge 2012-13 campaign with Atletico Madrid, Falcao’s 28 goals placed him solidly third in La Liga in total goals scored, but eight came from the penalty spot. (Falcao himself drew only two penalties.) Even this season, in which the striker has tallied a pair of goals early on for Monaco, one of the two came on a penalty kick. When you separate out penalties, his record no longer fits at the elite level. This graph shows the Colombian forward’s goals scored per 90 minutes record, broken down by non-penalty goals (NPG) and penalty goals (PG).

falcao_penalties

For context, let’s return to 2012-2013. Falcao’s 20 non-penalty goals put him even with Alvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado, who had 21 and 19 non-penalty goals respectively that season.  All three played huge minutes in the league, and they had roughly the same rates of non-penalty goal scoring. Negredo and Soldado were transferred to the English Premier League after those seasons, and neither particularly excelled.

The other issue with the statistical record of Manchester United’s new signing is that he does not add much outside of goals. He tallied just three assists in 2011-12, and then only one the next season. He has yet to assist a goal for Monaco. If we look not just at goal-scoring but total scoring contribution (goals plus assists), Falcao again looks short of elite and quite similar to Negredo and Soldado in his production. This chart lists NPG + Assists / 90 for the two seasons Falcao played in La Liga.


If Falcao can repeat these numbers for Manchester United, it is unlikely that fans of the Red Devils will be terribly disappointed. If he scores or assists 15 goals in 2000 minutes, equaling that 0.66 NPG + A/90 rate, the acquisition should not be seen as a failure. Both Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney have more impressive recent scoring contribution records, at 0.74 and 0.88 respectively last season, but both are injury-prone and will likely need to be covered for during the season.

However, injuries are the third issue with Falcao. He is coming off a serious knee injury, having missed the World Cup to have surgery on a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Now over a full year removed from his peak with Atletico Madrid and recovering from injury, can Falcao be counted upon to repeat his production from La Liga? Manchester United is paying a very large amount of money in the hope that he can. The numbers suggest that this is a large risk, and even if the risk pays off, the reward appears to be a good player rather than a great one.

All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.

Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A

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Nick Pollack · September 2, 2014