Arriving with a vast amount of hype and expectation in 2002, Diego Forlan left Manchester United with just 17 goals to his name in 100 appearances but, despite that, he remains a cult hero at Old Trafford – much to the bemusement of Jose Mourinho, who had to ask Michael Carrick why visiting fans were singing his name in a 3-0 victory over Sunderland last season.
‘He came from Uruguay, he made the Scousers cry’ is the chant Manchester United fans created for the South American striker, who made a big impression in December 2003 as he scored a brace in a 2-1 win over Liverpool.
Those goals came amidst the best run of form Forlan would have at Old Trafford, as he scored in back-to-back matches against Chelsea over the course of the next six weeks; first in the League Cup, then in the Premier League in January.
From there, things started to fall apart. Forlan failed to show the best of his ability consistently, leading him to stand behind Ruud van Nistelrooy in the pecking order, and eventually left in August 2004; his last appearance coming in a 1-0 defeat to Charlton Athletic.
Answering what exactly went wrong with the South American is certainly a difficult question, as Forlan would go on to secure a decent record in Spain with both Villarreal and Atletico Madrid, as well as being the stand-out player in the 2010 World Cup.
Forlan scored 54 La Liga goals for Villarreal and then 74 for Atletico Madrid, far superior to his tally of just ten Premier League goals over the course of 63 matches for Manchester United between 2002-04. At the age of 22 when he moved to the Premier League, that’s where the answer could lie.
Spending five years with Argentine side Independiente, scoring 36 goals in 77 league games, it was in South America where he made a name for himself. However, the circumstances of his transfer may well have had a lasting effect on a young player moving to a new continent.
Travelling to England and expecting to join Middlesbrough, Manchester United trumped the Teesside outfit with a very late approach and Forlan, rather unexpectedly, had come to a side where the expectations were far more significant and there was little room for error.
Forlan certainly wasn’t the first or the last South American to struggle in a move to Europe and the fact he had to contend with van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, both of whom were already heroes at Old Trafford, definitely didn’t help his cause.
Had his first move on the continent been to Middlesbrough, then later joining Manchester United, Forlan could have enjoyed much better form. Hindsight is a wonderful thing though and it could have had a long-lasting effect, as a certain Wayne Rooney joined Manchester United in 2004 – the summer where Forlan moved to Villarreal.
A move to Spain reignited the fire within and the Uruguayan, who was heavily linked with moves to Levante and Athletic Bilbao, hit the ground running with the Yellow Submarines – scoring on his debut against rivals Valencia, as well as scoring five goals that season against champions Barcelona – a brace in a 3-0 win and a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw.
With 25 La Liga goals, Forlan won the top-scorer award in Spain in his debut season, helping Villarreal qualify for the Champions League for the first-time in their history, and he was tied for the European Golden Shoe award with Arsenal’s Thierry Henry – with the Gunners knocking their Spanish opponents out on the European stage next season, as Villarreal reached the semi-finals in their inaugural season in the competition.
From there, Forlan went on to become a star at Atletico Madrid; helping the side from the capital secure a return to the Champions League for the first-time in a decade, filling the void left by Fernando Torres’ departure and creating a deadly partnership with a young striker by the name of Sergio Aguero.
Then there was his starring performance for Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup, where he finished with five goals and was named as the best player of the tournament, as his nation finished fourth after reaching the semi-finals; losing to beaten finalists Netherlands.
With all of that success elsewhere, it begs the question as to why Forlan couldn’t excel at Old Trafford. The answer, however, probably lies in the fact that he struggled to adapt to a new climate, new continent and a new language.
In Spain, where he enjoyed the best years of his career, Forlan found some home comforts that would remind him of life in South America – which Lionel Messi has also attributed to his success in Barcelona, as he regularly visits Argentine restaurants in Catalonia.
Some players struggle in new environments, it’s part and parcel of the game, but Forlan won’t necessarily look back at his time with Manchester United as a failure. Instead, the move acted as a stepping-stone for what would be a successful career; the highlight of which being 112 caps for Uruguay, which made him the most-capped player of his nation for a time.