Why Man United should have given Di Maria more time
While Angel Di Maria's lack of form over the last year has arguably been overstated, few players have experienced such a dip. The Argentine midfielder enjoyed a superb 2013/14 campaign, when it was expected that he would lose his place in Real Madrid's first XI due to the arrival of Gareth Bale.
Instead, Carlo Ancelotti moved him to a central midfield role, where he formed a solid relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo and provided six assists for the forward. His versatility proved a great strength and Madrid were able to move from 4-4-3 to a 4-4-2 just by moving Di Maria across to the left and Ronaldo into the centre to partner Karim Benzema. The season ended with Champions League glory and Di Maria was superb in that final against Atletico Madrid; his saved shot falling for Bale to head home the winner.
It was at the World Cup with Argentina that his luck began to take a turn for the worse. Di Maria struggled to maintain the same levels for Argentina after a long season in Madrid. His strike in extra-time against Switzerland did take them through to the quarter-finals, although it came from his 12th attempt in the game. Then injury struck against Belgium and the winger was forced to miss the subsequent semi-final against the Netherlands and extra-time defeat to Germany in the final at the Maracana.
Di Maria certainly wasn't bitter about the experience, however, and it's this mental stamina which looked to stand him in good stead for his impending move to Old Trafford. "I’m very happy about what happened," he declared. "Aside from injuries, which can afflict anyone, I achieved big things like winning la Décima with Madrid and helping Argentina reach the World Cup final after many years."
His debut for Manchester United was fairly uneventful, but then he scored three goals - including a breathtaking chip at Leicester - and carved out four assists in his next five matches. It's easy to forget that he won the club's player of the month award for September. Another injury at the end of November meant he missed the following six weeks, and on his return Louis van Gaal opted to utilise him alongside Robin van Persie - similar to his use of Arjen Robben for Holland at the World Cup.
In the space of six games from mid-January, Di Maria was played in four different positions
"I’m the manager and I cannot deny what I see. We have to give Angel a little bit more time to adapt to the Premier League, the high English rhythm. It is not so easy," confessed Van Gaal as the British record signing endeavoured to meet the specific requirements placed on him by his coach.
Di Maria's style is all about energy, and if he's hampered by fitness issues then the 27-year-old will invariably find it hard to fit into Van Gaal's system. The former Benfica man had no such troubles in the early part of the campaign when he featured regularly on the left wing or in the centre. It's notable that his standards regressed when he was asked to play either as a No.10, on the right or as a striker.
DI MARIA IN 2014/15
- Appearances: 32 (24 starts)
- Minutes: 1,999
- Goals: 4
- Assists: 10
Di Maria had a poor first season for a player of his ability, and due to the staggering transfer fee paid it's perhaps understandable that United would look to cash in early to reinvest some of the money back into their squad. But there's a strong sense that it could have been different. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Pedro are more suited to Van Gaal's ideology, although both are (or would be, in Pedro's case) considerable gambles. The German's own injury concerns shouldn't be understated, and at 31 it could make it even harder for him to adjust to the vigorous demands of changing leagues. Pedro had two fantastic seasons under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, and another excellent campaign with Gerardo Martino in charge, but the team have to get the philosophy perfect for the Spaniard to reach his potential - a big ask given that we saw few signs of it last term.
"He has to know what he's doing as a player, as a team player," Van Gaal admitted when asked about the type of signing he'd been looking to acquire. "And when you are a Louis van Gaal player you don't know only your function in your position but also the other functions in their positions, and then you can help each other much more. Then you are always improving the team." United were a long way from the finished product last term, even though they improved in the run-in and claimed fourth spot.
The problem now comes if Schweinsteiger is required to define the pace of Van Gaal's methods, the World Cup-winning captain having played 2,000 minutes fewer than Di Maria across the league and Champions League in the last two seasons. The importance of Michael Carrick - who turned down a move to PSG over the weekend, according to reports - will likely remain high in the forthcoming year at Old Trafford.
PL ASSISTS 2014/15
- Cesc Fabregas 18
- Santi Cazorla 11
- Angel Di Maria 10
- Chris Brunt 10
- Gylfi Sigurdsson 10
Too little time
Di Maria offers individualistic flair when he's at his best, and is a selfless hard worker at his worst. "We look for more creativity, and when it is possible to buy players from that level for a reasonable price we shall do that," confessed Van Gaal. "You can expect things from Ashley Young. He had a fantastic season. But he is not a Neymar and we have to compete with that kind of class." Neither is Di Maria, it should be noted, but in his underwhelming 12 months in Manchester he created the highest amount of chances at the club and managed more assists than any other player in the squad - twice as many as Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney.
In France, Di Maria will likely return to his tenacious best, and not just because Ligue 1 is less competitive. His re-emergence will also be prominent in Europe as PSG seek to go further than the quarter-finals, but the pressure to succeed straight away will be no less than in Manchester as he aims to fit straight into Laurent Blanc's 4-3-3 on the left of midfield or in attack. At PSG he will play a supporting role once again, as Blanc looks to maximise Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani's effectiveness.
"Players like him [Di Maria] are the ones who take you to the next level,” Zinedine Zidane told Marca. "His arrival would be a definite plus for PSG. Having Di Maria would be a massive advantage in the Champions League. He’d bring energy, his acceleration would make a huge difference, and he has the talent to do absolutely anything." At 27, Di Maria still has a lot more to offer. Perhaps if Van Gaal wasn't intent on leaving in two years' time, the situation might just be different.