During the early 2000’s. Manchester United began to establish an extensive scouting network to unearth talent in South America. They signed scouts and established contacts in various countries, and slowly that endeavour began to achieve results. The first of which was Diego Forlan.
Forlan signed for United as a 22-year-old in January 2002 from Argentinian side Independiente. Forlan’s form in Argentina drew attention from clubs in Europe, having scored nearly a goal every other game, and was on his way to Middlesbrough at the time, with the clubs agreeing on a fee, but United came in with a late offer as well as a more lucrative deal for Forlan. He didn’t have to wait long for his first game, making his debut a week later away to Bolton Wanderers, coming on as a second-half substitute in a 4-0 win.
He made his first United start in another 4-0 win in early March, this time at home against Tottenham, but failed to put his name on the scoresheet. In fact, that was a recurring theme for the rest of the season. Despite making 13 appearances in the league, as well as five more in the Champions League, he had yet scored his first goal for the club.
On 18 September 2002, Forlan scored his first goal for the club, in a Champions League match against Maccabi Haifa. After coming on as a substitute for Ryan Giggs, Forlan converted a penalty, adding his contribution to a solid 5-2 win. That 2002-03 became Forlan’s highest scoring of the two full seasons at United, but despite playing 45 appearances in all competitions he still failed to break double digits, scoring just nine goals.
But some of those goals have earned United vital points. This is best exemplified by United’s visit to fierce rivals Liverpool, Forlan etched his name in United folklore by scoring two goals in three minutes in what became a 2-1 win for United. Forlan won his first piece of silverware at United, as the club won the league title, finishing five points ahead of second-placed Arsenal.
His second season wasn’t much different in terms of goals scored, scoring just eight goals in all competitions. He won the FA Cup in 2004 but was not called up to the matchday squad for the final against Millwall. The following summer, Forlan left United to sign for Villarreal.
He took some time to adjust in Spain. After scoring in his debut, a 2-1 defeat to Valencia, it took him over a month to get his second. But that goal then opened the floodgates, as Forlan went in to score 25 goals that season, winning him the Pichichi, awarded to the La Liga top scorer. His penchant for scoring important goals in big games didn’t go away either, scoring two in a 3-0 home win over Barcelona, and then scoring his first hat-trick for a European side in the reverse fixture, a 3-3 draw. Villarreal finished the season in third, qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history.
His goal rate dropped in his next season, scoring just 10 goals in the league and three in Europe. But the season after he kicked back into gear, scoring 19 league goals, and got his hands on the Pichichi once more, sharing it with Barcelona’s Thierry Henry this time.
Forlan signed for Atletico Madrid at the start of the 2007-08 season and formed a lethal partnership up front with Sergio Aguero. Forlan ended his first season with a very respectable tally of 16 goals. But that tally was doubled in the season after. He scored nearly one goal a game in the 2008-09 season and won the Pichichi for the third time in five years with a stunning 32 goals. Forlan won his first continental competition in 2010 when Atletico won the UEFA Cup.
He returned to haunt Liverpool when the two sides met in the semi-final of that season’s UEFA Cup. In the first leg, he scored the only goal in a 1-0 home win, and in the second leg, with Liverpool leading 2-1 on aggregate in extra time, he scored again to give Atletico the away goal they needed to advance to the final. In the final itself, against Fulham, Atletico won 2-1, with Forlan scoring both goals.
Forlan’s impressive performances didn’t stop at club level. In the summer’s 2010 World Cup, he scored five goals to finish as the competition’s joint top scorer and was awarded the Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament, helping Uruguay reach the semi-finals
Forlan started to slow down in the next season, scoring just eight league goals. But that summer he won his first international trophy, as Uruguay won the 2011 Copa America. His performance at the tournament helped earn him a move to Inter Milan to replace Samuel Eto’o, who had left the club to join Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia. At 32 years old, however, Forlan couldn’t make the same impact in Italy as he did in Spain, and he left the club after just one season after scoring just two goals for Inter. This was to be his last season in Europe, as he would spend the next few years of his career playing for Internacional in Brazil, Cerezo Osaka in Japan, and back to his homeland of Uruguay at Penarol.
Despite his troublesome time at United, he was never seen in a bad light by his manager Sir Alex Ferguson. After the 2010 World Cup, Ferguson described him as a “great lad and a magnificent professional,” saying he could’ve been a hero at United. So what went wrong?
There was the issue of Forlan’s sister. During his time at United, Forlan had to fly back and forth to Spain, where he always wanted to and eventually did end up, to take care of his sister, who was left paralysed after a car accident in 1991 that killed her boyfriend. Forlan immediately made a promise to her after the accident that he would become a footballer to help her get the best treatment possible, and he was merely keeping that promise.
But there was also problems on the pitch, that he couldn’t link up with Ruud van Nistelrooy, as Ferguson explained in his 2013 autobiography:
“Another striker who ran up against Ruud’s singularity was Forlan, a grand player. Ruud wanted to be the No. 1 finisher. That was his nature. Diego Forlan didn’t register on his radar at all, so when you put the two of them out there together there was zero chemistry.”
Van Nistelrooy had been United’s top scorer for three consecutive seasons, so under normal circumstances, it was unlikely that Forlan would be able to displace him had he stayed on. But in the 2004-05 season, the season Forlan left, van Nistelrooy only managed to play 17 league matches due to injuries, and, while he was prolific in Europe, only managed six league goals. A teenage Wayne Rooney was the club’s top scorer, with just 11 goals in the league and 17 in all competitions.
With Forlan’s first season at Villarreal taken into consideration, it’s clear that the issue isn’t that he was simply not good enough. With van Nistelrooy sidelined for much of the season, Forlan would’ve had a better chance to really show what he’s capable of with a more supportive team around him. Van Nistelrooy left United at the start of the 2006-07 season, the season where Forlan won his second Pichichi award.
This all seems coincidental, that they just happened to take place at the same time, but Forlan showed after he left United that he was a formidable striker. It’s easy to say in hindsight that United sold Forlan too soon, but you do have to wonder; “what if?”