Michael Cox ponders whether the Dutch tactician's tinkering is stopping the Argentine superstar from hitting top gear...
It's very common for La Liga imports to suffer a post-Christmas dip in their debut Premier League campaign, but few could have expected Angel Di Maria's sharp downturn in form. English football's record signing made an immediate impact following his move to Old Trafford, but his recent displays have been extremely underwhelming.
The statistics tell the story: the Argentine managed three goals and four assists in his first five matches, and added a couple more assists in November.
However, he's now managed no goals and just two assists from his last 10 league appearances, and in Manchester United's last three games he's been substituted with his side needing a goal.
Louis van Gaal has run out of patience, but the Dutchman's tactics are arguably why Di Maria has been suffering in the first place.
It remains extremely difficult to work out Van Gaal's vision for Manchester United. The results have been good, the performances anything but – and it's difficult to name many star players for them this season, aside from goalkeeper David de Gea.
Frustratingly, Van Gaal's system seems to change constantly, which means it's been extremely difficult for players to get to grips with the specific demands of their position in the side.
Some players have played three positions this season, and while it's useful to have a couple of jack-of-all-trades in the side – United have benefited from the likes of John O'Shea and Phil Neville in this role over the years – you don't want various players unsure of their best role.
This, however, has been the problem for United – and Di Maria has been the biggest casualty. There are some players, youngsters like Adnan Januzaj and Phil Jones, who might benefit from experience in different positions at this stage of their career.
For others, like Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini, positional switches have worked nicely with these players filling functional roles, while the likes of Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick are experienced enough to adapt to the changes smoothly. Di Maria, though, is at his peak – he should be the player Manchester United are basing their team around, rather than moving around from week to week.
He started off playing on the left of a midfield diamond, where he could receive short passes to feet and then roar forward through the centre. This is the position Di Maria has generally specialised in – he made his name at Benfica in a diamond also featuring Javi Garcia, Ramires and Pablo Aimar, and then excelled for Real Madrid in a very 'narrow' role too.
He's more of a midfielder than a natural winger, simply one with tremendous dribbling skills and with a tendency to try a trick, too. The diamond suited him perfectly, and he adapted instantly to Premier League football, scoring a goal and creating three chances on debut.
Then, however, Van Gaal seemed think Di Maria was actually better as a forward. Having got the best from Arjen Robben at last summer's World Cup by playing the Bayern man in a roaming centre-forward role, he often deployed Di Maria similarly high up, in the final third.
It's sometimes worked when United have scored breakaway goals late on – against Arsenal and Yeovil, in particular – but it starves Di Maria of service. With the midfield lacking mobility and dynamism, it seems a curious move, yet for a while Di Maria was playing up front, with Rooney fielded deeper in midfield.
More recently Di Maria has been fielded in more of a conventional wide role – where he can perform well, as he showed towards the end of last season at Real Madrid under Carlo Ancelotti – but he seems to have lost confidence, and has failed to replicate that form.
He simply seems to concede possession an awful lot, summarised by his terrible completion rate in terms of both dribbles and passes into the final third against Newcastle in midweek. He's conceding possession readily, and isn't compensating for this by contributing regularly overnight.
First impressions stick. Di Maria's first at Manchester United was extremely positive, and he clearly remains a player with huge potential. But this is the fifth-biggest signing in the history of football, and so far the performances simply haven't been up to scratch.
A good finale to the season might change perceptions – Monday's FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal would be a good place to start – but Di Maria's Manchester United career thus far has been completely underwhelming.