Angel Di Maria may not be the man to provide the “miracle” Louis van Gaal is looking for to enable United to become serious title contenders this season, but he will ensure a big step in the right direction following a tumultuous few years at Old Trafford.
The fact that the vast majority of the usually hard-to-please Madrid supporters wanted the Argentine international to stay says it all. The fact that Carlo Ancelotti, a man who has won it all as a manager, wanted the 26-year-old to stay says it all too. Players do not usually leave the Santiago Bernabeu in such a manner and Di Maria’s departure is a rarity. The main man who seemingly didn’t want him in the Spanish capital was the president, Florentino Perez, and the understanding is that his decision was based more on the commercial aspect of today’s game than Di Maria’s clear footballing ability. He didn’t sell shirts, whereas World Cup star James Rodriguez, a somewhat surprise summer signing, does.
United are getting a player who was amongst the best in the world last season, especially in the second half of the campaign – the half that matters. The former Benfica man went from being a bench-warmer following the big-money arrival of Gareth Bale to arguably Madrid’s most important cog as they completed the Copa del Rey and Champions League double. He outshone Cristiano Ronaldo and Bale, he outshone Luka Modric and Xabi Alonso, he outshone Karim Benzema. He was the leading light in Madrid’s triumphant squad last term.
Sir Alex Ferguson may have had a quiet word in his ear as he handed over the man-of-the-match award to Di Maria following the Champions League final. He impressed for Los Blancos throughout and provided the dazzling run and shot that eventually saw Bale head in Madrid’s vital second goal in injury time. It was a goal that saw Bale grab the headlines but it was a goal made by Di Maria.
That was no exception. The midfielder topped La Liga’s assists charts last season by a distance and that was in a season where Ancelotti’s side were off the pace in third. It was in a season where the big stats were supposed to all go to Bale and Ronaldo but Di Maria, on this occasion, topped the lot.
He has played at wing-back, a position he has been muted for at Old Trafford under Van Gaal’s preferred style, and he has played out wide in a three-man attack. He has been successful in both positions but it was in Madrid’s three-man midfield where he took his performances to the next season. It’s in the middle of the park where ‘The Noodle’, as he’s affectionately known, really struts his stuff. Referred to as the engine that makes Madrid’s big-money car tick, Di Maria is energy personified and has the stamina to be a successful box-to-box
midfielder for the duration of a match.
One of his talents is to adapt to whatever position he’s played in. He can complement a United attacking line comprising Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie but his most effective role would be in the middle. It’s where he played his best football at Madrid, and arguably in his career, and what drive his price up to probably double what many clubs would have paid for him only back in January.
A key pawn in Madrid’s lethal counter-attacking football, he has the defensive qualities to track back, hassle defenders and win the ball deep before surging upfield to turn defence into attack in seconds. Ronaldo and Bale have the raw pace to complement that but Di Maria was the one to accomplish it more often than not.
Footballing attributes aside, he has the determination to succeed, too. No pressure is too great. At Benfica, he was signed to replace departing idol Simao, and he more than settled into the role with the Portuguese fans taking to his performances instantly. Soon, of course, those performances attracted Madrid. Perez was a fan, once.
Last season he was also driven by a desire to prove Perez wrong and to secure a first-team place despite the arrival of Bale, as well as Isco and Asier Illarramendi in midfield for big money. While Mesut Ozil opted for the exit door and Arsenal, Di Maria stuck around and made a real fist of competing for a starting role in a squad with an embarrassment of riches – especially in the middle of the park. In a 4-2-3-1 formation Di Maria would have struggled to play week-in, week-out, but Ancelotti’s 4-3-3 suited him to a tee. He made a spot alongside Alonso and Modric very much his own.
It was not all smiles and laughter for Di Maria in Madrid, however. A substitution in a Copa del Rey match last season saw the Argentine refuse to shake his managers hand and storm off town the tunnel, while he also had to explain a controversial ‘crotch grab’ at the Bernabeu when he was substituted in the same month in a match against Celta Vigo. Di Maria is a man who wants regular first-team football and he will showcase his frustration if he doesn’t get it.
Those outbursts were enough to see the Bernabeu crowd whistle him on occasions, showing how much of a turnaround he performed with his scintillating star turns in the second half of the season. Those performances were driven by a determination to prove people wrong and United fans will be pleased to see that Di Maria will continue to do that at Old Trafford, even if it is to prove a certain Mr. Perez wrong.
He doesn’t only have the skills to succeed, but he has the pace that should see him fit into the Premier League seamlessly. Watching from a distance, United have been missing that pace and urgency, especially in the middle of the park in recent seasons and the 26-year-old will provide that.
That pace often sees him caught by defenders and one of the negatives in his play has been his playacting. He could get away with that somewhat in Spain but that will not wash in England, and not with United fans I expect.
The sum is also one that Madrid have done well out of. Rewind back to the last winter transfer window and a fee of £25 million was being muted to get the midfield maestro but his performances since then have not only worked in the player’s favour, they’ve worked in Madrid’s, too. His shirts may not sell, but he has, and that money offsets the big summer arrivals of James, Toni Kroos and Keylor Navas. Expect some of it to be splashed on Falcao.
United fans should rest assured knowing that if Di Maria continues to play how he played in the second half of last season, the British record transfer fee may not seem too bad at all if it helps the Premier League’s most successful club get back to the summit of England’s top flight again.