What does it take to assume the mantle of the number seven shirt at Manchester United? Talent, obviously, though a footballer needs more than just quality in order to live up to the lineage associated with the jersey.
The right kind of player doesn’t heave the burden of history up onto their shoulders and amble forward like a contestant of World’s Strongest Man. Antonio Valencia tried to grit his teeth and get on with the job of lifting such a load and it almost crushed him. Instead, a true number seven appears to wear this weight lightly, as if they barely recognise that it’s there.
It’s a history that demands to be continued and replenished, rather than put up with, and every great to have worn the seven for United over the decades has done so in their own way; reinterpreting the shirt’s story to fit their style of play and era.
George Best was the icon who birthed a legend out on the wing. Bryan Robson later imparted his own greatness upon the number through the middle, as did Eric Cantona up front. David Beckham took it back to the flanks, but the coiffured Englishman was delivery platform for spectacular crosses rather than mind-boggling feet and dribbling. The shirt’s meaning was reinvented and expanded by every single one of these reigns, until Cristiano Ronaldo took it back to its roots with his prolific stint out wide as the greatest wing-forward Old Trafford had seen in a generation.
Now, Angel Di Maria looks set to take the number seven into another new direction following this retro-revival under stewardship his former Real Madrid team mate. And for the first time since 2009 when the Portuguese left for the Bernabeu, it seems as though the shirt finally has an incumbent worthy of its heritage. Rather than inspire, Valencia perspired while his direct predecessor, former Liverpool striker Michael Owen, never fit the folklore.
By contrast, the Argentinian has already looked at ease with the expectations placed upon him by his new shirt number, its past and those who bore it previously, and not through a lack of awareness of the meaning behind it all. “I am aware of importance of the number seven shirt,” he said through a translator during his official unveiling. “Cristiano Ronaldo had spoken to me at Real Madrid and told me how important it was. I wanted to wear it and to be able to do as much for the club as Ronaldo and all the others [who have worn it].”
Having arrived during a hectic transitional summer under the newly installed Louis van Gaal, Di Maria didn’t delay in getting stuck into the task at hand after a tepid opening three games for United that garnered only two points from a possible nine. Due to his price tag, and the lack of reinforcements in defensive midfield prior to deadline day, there was pessimism from some quarters over the idea of spending around £60 million on a winger while the heart of the team still looked weak. Reports that the club were reluctant to pay the going rate for Arturo Vidal didn’t help matters. However, after driving Madrid to the Champions League last season, it’s clear that Argentina international is no ordinary winger.
In this age of false positions and inverted footballers, it can be unwise to throw around yet more jargon to describe the roles of players on the pitch without due care or reason. Patience is in short supply and tempers are already frayed given the amount of terminology that has already been cast adrift to overcomplicate parts of the game that need not be so busy and obtuse.
Yet Di Maria is a player worth making exceptions for. If such a thing as a box-to-box winger could be allowed to exist, it would be a fitting way to sum up his brilliance and the role he has come to play over the past year or so since Carlo Ancelotti redeployed him within central midfield to give balance and energy to a team overloaded with attacking talent.
As United fans have already witnessed in his two games for the club so far, the Argentinian is a remarkable mix of industry and ingenuity. Van Gaal has picked up where Ancelotti—and the man who bested him at the semi-final stage of the World Cup this summer, Alejandro Sabella—left off, deploying Di Maria within the midfield two of his experimental 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 diamond formations, with a license to burst out wide and up field where possible. He may not be the most substantially built footballer of all time, but he works his lean and wiry frame hard in order to blast past his markers and harry them when out of possession. With the ball, he is far more than just a tricky dribbler too.
Sir Alex Ferguson prolonged the first team careers of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes in order to retain their exceedingly rare abilities to perceive and invent opportunities in the most precious of moments and tightest of spaces. Often these two veteran midfielders were able to conjure chances seemingly out of nowhere, with little in the way of fuss or flash. They were resourceful master craftsmen rather than self-indulgent artistes, and Di Maria too appears to share some of their gifts for producing instants of understated genius. Against both Burnley and Queens Park Rangers he was able to pick out Robin van Persie from a fair range as well as Wayne Rooney and Daley Blind have for club and country respectively in recent years. In small pockets of space, he upped the intensity of the team’s short passing game in the final third, with some clever flick-ons and give-and-go spots of inter-play between his new team mates to bypass defenders while on the move. Like Giggs and Scholes—and his number seven predecessors, specifically Cantona and Robson—Di Maria has that resourcefulness and clarity of mind to pick a second apart and find some sort of opportunity to seize upon.
It may only be a shirt number, but at United the seven stands for something. The players who have succeeded in wearing it have done so by refreshing the legend with their own identities. Di Maria will be no different in that regard, although perhaps his contribution to the shirt’s story will be one of consolidation.
He is a winger who plays from one box to the other creating chances and driving his team mates forward with his running and passing. He may not be perpetual motion, or have the sheer presence of Eric, the complete physique and game of Ronaldo, or the outrageous, singular virtuosity of Best, but in some ways Di Maria is a player who unites these various threads together into this richly woven tapestry like no other before him. Not an imitation or a clone, but a perfect number seven.