How can Manchester United solve the Angel Di Maria problem?
Angel Di Maria was signed by Manchester United last summer for a transfer fee of £59.7 million, the highest fee ever paid by a British club. He arrived amid a lot of fanfare and expectation. The Old Trafford faithful have always been fond of wingers, and when one such world class player comes along to grace the fabled no.7 shirt, then expectations are bound to be a notch higher.
A lot of these expectations were met early in the season when the 2014 FIFA World Cup finalist scored 3 and assisted 4 goals in his first six appearances for the Red Devils. But the Argentine has been mediocre at best since those early exploits. The sudden drop in form may be attributed to several reasons on the field as well as off it.
What is Di Maria’s best position at Manchester United?
Considering his exploits for Real Madrid in the Champions League winning campaign last season, his best position might be to the left in a midfield three. Although he is a winger by trade, last season Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti was forced to accommodate the pacy Argentine in midfield because of the arrival of Gareth Bale. Louis van Gaal has also played him in a similar position for the majority of this season, but to rather minimal effect.
The context here is the key. The fact that he was playing behind the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale helped his game as they all had pace to burn. All three players are used to fast counter-attacking moves, and this is where Di Maria thrived, playing the ball behind the opposition defence.
We can hardly say the same for United. Players like Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao are hardly known for their pace. Also, United rarely play on the break. The players they have at the moment are ill-suited to play counter-attacking football. At times, Van Gaal has opted for a counter-attacking approach depending on the quality of opponents his team is facing.
One such fixture that comes to mind is the game away from home against Arsenal last November. United won the match 2-1 and Di Maria was playing up front alongside Van Persie in a 3-4-1-2 formation and was a constant threat to the Arsenal defence, counter-attacking at a devastating pace.
Considering the fact that Van Gaal played the Argentine midfielder up front on quite a few occasions, the idea was to get a player to play a role that Arjen Robben successfully played for Netherlands in a similar formation. But the ploy wasn’t as successful for United as it was for the Oranje.
Manchester United’s current strategy not suited to Di Maria
The majority of this season, United’s possession-based approach has also not suited No. 7, who is more productive in a counter-attacking role. Although possession based style may not be his strength, this is one area where he has to improve because one cannot expect Van Gaal to change the way his teams plays towards the end of the season.
Another reason for the slump in form might be because he is afforded less space on the pitch in a league where the physical aspect of the game is a factor unlike La Liga which is comparatively less physical and more open.
It also hasn’t helped that both the manager and a player have arrived in the same season looking to master a league in which they haven’t worked before. Not to mention the fact that they hardly had any time together in pre-season because of their impressive exploits in the 2014 World Cup.
Apart from the tactical issues, it is not only his recent form that is a concern but also his apparent lack of courage to get stuck into a challenge or his unwillingness to work hard off the ball. There are suggestions that he repeatedly goes down injured to deliberately get substituted, which is a very harsh and exaggerated claim. Incidents off the pitch that might be hampering his professional life; like the attempted break-in at his house has reportedly left him and his family unsettled in their new surroundings.
Di Maria’s problem now is that he hardly has any time to settle down. With a top four finish a minimum requirement this season for United and rather difficult fixtures fast approaching, Van Gaal might hardly have any time to address the Di Maria issue. The best that we can hope is for the Argentine to build his confidence in the coming weeks and reclaim the form that he showed at the start of the season and guide his team to a top four finish, and maybe a FA Cup trophy as well.
But till then, the jury is well and truly out on the 27-year-old Argentine.