March 9, 2015. Manchester United face Arsenal in an FA Cup quarter-final. Old Trafford witnesses arguably the lowest point of Angel Di Maria’s short spell at the club; the Argentinean is sent off for two bookings, one for diving, another for his subsequent petulance. The winger would start one more match at the club before departing in the summer.
March 9, 2016. Chelsea face Paris Saint-Germain in a Champions League last-16 second-leg tie. Stamford Bridge is silenced by a masterclass from one of the French side’s summer signings. A man who was derided and ridiculed during his time in the Premier League is a star performer on his first game back in England. The player in question? One Angel Di Maria.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic will take the plaudits – he tends to do so – but Chelsea’s defeat to PSG on Tuesday was manufactured elsewhere. Di Maria was irresistible in London, allying pace with precision, combining verve with creativity, and marrying simplicity with exuberance. One assist, four shots – the most of any player, as were his two shots on target – three chances created, and a 92.3% pass accuracy. Statistics can often mislead, but those do not flatter Di Maria. As was the case in the first leg in Paris, the Argentinean was the difference on Tuesday.
It was difficult not to watch Di Maria and think how perfect an addition he would be to Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United squad. The Dutchman has often expressed his wish for players boasting speed, skill and power. Jesse Lingard is, after all, still Jesse Lingard. Van Gaal would perhaps have watched his former player and lamented his struggles during his year in Manchester.
Di Maria was the marquee signing for United in summer 2014. After the debacle of David Moyes, signing the winger was akin to a man fighting off his mid-life crisis by purchasing a Jaguar. Di Maria was just months removed from a Champions League final man-of-the-match performance for Real Madrid, while he provided much of the inspiration for Argentina to reach the World Cup final that summer. United were buying a mega star in both name and quality.
It all started so well, too. Di Maria thrilled in his early United career, scoring three goals and assisting a further three in his opening five matches. The ultimate pragmatist had found his perfect expressionist. The player was the direct antithesis of his manager. And yet it worked.
For the opening months, anyway. Things would get no better for Di Maria at Old Trafford. The 28-year-old’s last league goal for the club came in October. The £59.7million signing was soon kept out of the team by Ashley Young. Such an ignominious fate meant his departure for Paris after just one year was inevitable.
Considering his excellent performance on Tuesday at Stamford Bridge however, why was Di Maria such an unmitigated failure in England? The player’s attitude problems were well-documented. An attempted burglary at his Manchester home merely compounded the problems. Having to play with Marouane Fellaini has an effect on even the most talented of players. But was Van Gaal the issue? Is his inability to foster Di Maria’s quality his biggest failure as United manager?
The qualities Van Gaal seeks – pace, power and skill – are the ones which adorn Di Maria’s arsenal. Yet Van Gaal never truly accepted the club-record signing. Angel Di Maria is no central midfielder. Angel Di Maria is no striker. Angel Di Maria is not a No 10, at least not with the wrong players to provide for. But Van Gaal elected to utilise the Argentinean in each of these areas. Di Maria played in seven different positions at United, making no more than seven starts in any of them. Just months after dismantling Atletico Madrid in the showpiece of European club football, supplying Cristiano Ronaldo from the wing, the 28-year-old was asked to play alongside an ailing Robin van Persie and ahead of a regressing Wayne Rooney as a striker.
Van Persie. Young. Fellaini. Antonio Valencia. Those are just four of the 12 players afforded more Premier League minutes than Di Maria last season. Valencia started nine more games. Yet only Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla provided more assists (ten) throughout the campaign. Only Rooney scored or assisted more United goals combined than the Argentinean. This despite being stifled, marginalised and frustrated by his manager.
“Some players cannot adapt to the team philosophy,” Van Gaal once said. “That you cannot know in advance. You have to see that.” The comments came in October 2015; he was discussing Memphis Depay, not Di Maria.
“That also happened with Di Maria and Falcao – both great players but you have to fit in with the philosophy,” Van Gaal continued. “Not only with Memphis, with every player that we have bought.”
It is this ‘philosophy’ which forced a rift between Di Maria and Van Gaal, so much so that the former’s exit was the only viable option. One can only hope Depay – the sort of quick, skilful winger his manager claims to desire – does not suffer the same fate.
“Van Gaal has his philosophy and it is one of the reasons why I wanted to leave Manchester United,” Di Maria said in August. Di Maria should have been far more reciprocal. Granted. But such a relationship works both ways. When claims are abound that players are ‘afraid to make mistakes’ for fear of the manager’s reaction, it speaks volumes. Di Maria is a footballer who takes risks. With them come errors. But they will also generate majesty and excellence. It is as much the manager’s fault that such excellence was rarely showcased at Old Trafford as it is the player’s.
A year on from his United nadir, Di Maria was provided the perfect opportunity to silence his critics. He emphatically took it. His former employers will continue preparations for their Europa League round of 16 tie on Thursday; his current side take a deserved place in the Champions League’s last eight.