Louis van Gaal to blame for frustrated Angel Di Maria’s Manchester United woes
Van Gaal’s decision to shift the Argentine all over the place has paid little dividends for the Red Devils
The demise of Ángel Di María has been pretty painful to watch. A fall in the space of a year from £60m record Manchester United signing and best creator on the planet to dismissed onlooker having been sent off against Arsenal for the pettiest of double bookings on Monday night has been quite something.
Nobody expected this to happen to the extent that it has, and he has in some sense been the victim of circumstance but his frustration as he grabbed the shirt of referee Michael Oliver in reaction to having just been cautioned for diving spoke volumes. The walk, head bowed and silent, off the pitch and down the tunnel was even more poignant.
He has recently looked a man bereft of ideas, far from enjoying his time as the star man at one of the biggest clubs in the world. He hadn’t originally wanted to leave Madrid for Manchester, and after seven months in England doesn’t seem to have come round to the idea anymore.
After a bright start when he genuinely looked like the player United had hoped they’d bought, particularly in scoring that wonderful scooped chip at Leicester and in registering 3 goals and 4 assists in his first 5 games for the club, the Argentine’s performances have tailed off. Louis van Gaal has almost neutralised his threat.
How Van Gaal has neutralised Di Maria's threat at Manchester United
Di María was purchased on the back of a hugely impressive season for Real Madrid, in which he occupied a role as the box-to-box player in a midfield 3. He was arguably the Champions League winners’ best player all season, topping Europe’s big 5 leagues for assists made (17), before he then starred for Argentina at the World Cup in a similar role.
After he was forced off in the 33rd minute of their quarter-final against Belgium due to injury (when they were 1-0 up), Argentina failed to score another goal in Brazil in nearly 5 hours of action without Di María.
He is unquestionably a hugely potent attacking threat, and when he came to Old Trafford he rediscovered that threat after injury. Even as late as mid-November away to Arsenal Di María was one of the stars of the show, ruthlessly helping United to a deserved smash-and-grab counter-attacking 2-1 win. A hamstring injury suffered against Hull scuppered his progress, but it is simplistic to lay too much blame on that knock.
In his absence, United played poorly but still picked up results. A 1-1 draw at Aston Villa was scarcely deserved while a goalless clash at White Hart Lane saw United as dull as they have been in recent memory. The 3-0 win over Liverpool was almost solely with thanks to the heroics of David De Gea and the 2-1 victory at Southampton came as they had only 3 shots all night. When Di María returned, Van Gaal decided to reinstate him but in a more advanced position.
Clearly, receiving the ball higher up the pitch with his back to goal did not suit the Argentine. Clearly, it wasn’t working with Rooney further back, either. And yet Van Gaal persisted. Since injury in November, Di María, despite playing much of the time further up the field, has just 1 goal to his name – at Yeovil in the FA Cup.
He has 2 assists in his last 9 Premier League games after picking up 6 in his first 11, with his key passes per game dropping from 2.8 to 1.6. He is shooting less (2.6 per game down from 3.0) and making fewer tackles (0.4 down from 0.7); his WhoScored rating has plummeted from 7.45 pre-December to just 6.82.
The problems were glaring, and it was truly perplexing as to why Van Gaal kept going with it. When Di María moved to a stagnating Manchester United he was immediately their best player. The logical thing to do therefore was build the team around him, much like José Mourinho has done so successfully with Cesc Fàbregas at Chelsea.
Di Maria has played in too many positions in a single season
Van Gaal’s decision to shift the Argentine all over the place – he has played in no fewer than 7 different positions in his short time in Manchester – has paid little dividends. All 3 of his goals and 5 of his 8 assists have come when playing as part of central midfield, where he has an average rating of 7.99; at least 0.64 better than in any other position.
It is as clear now as it was when he first arrived which role he is best suited to, so why make an uneasy and unwanted transition to England – worsened all the more by an attempted burglary at his home in February – yet more troubling by making things harder for him to settle on the field? Why shift him around unnecessarily?
The weather, a lack of winter break and the fact that he was audibly disgruntled at having to leave Spain are the kind of factors could affect an import and that fans will have little sympathy with, but why not try and make things as simple as possible for a player with the potential to inspire United to success after such a woeful time last season?
It hasn’t been all doom and gloom. He has 8 assists to his name, a tally only Fàbregas (15) can top of all Premier League players, but someone of Di María’s quality, in support of the likes of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Falcao, Juan Mata and more, could and probably should be doing even better.
United are not playing to their full potential, though, and are combining to produce significantly less than the sum of their parts. His individual issues are symptomatic of fundamental problems with this Manchester United team. Di María should not be absolved of any responsibility, but the buck stops with Louis van Gaal.