What's going wrong with Angel Di Maria?
Manchester United’s sudden return to form has strangely coincided with the absence of their record signing Angel Di Maria. Ashley Young has done an effective fill-in job whenever called upon and now fans and pundits have raised the question whether Di Maria should be restored to the starting lineup at all. For many, the red card and subsequent ban which he brought upon himself by foolishly pulling referee’s shirt in United’s home defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup is a blessing in disguise.
Di Maria joined United in the summer amidst much fanfare and excitement. Fans who frowned upon the signings of Mata and Fellaini saw Di Maria as a proper Manchester United signing. Pace and dynamism are the minimum requirements for a United-type of player and Di Maria has both in abundance. But strangely while the so-called panic buys of David Moyes has forced their way into Louis van Gaal’s reckoning, Di Maria seems to be slipping out of it. So what has gone wrong with the 59-million man?
LVG’s Philosophy and Di Maria plays spoiler
Dissecting Louis van Gaal’s football philosophy is a complex and difficult job, but the very fulcrum of his philosophy is ball possession. It’s like, ‘Keep the ball and you shall win’. Van Gaal hates his players losing possession and when it is surrendered cheaply like Di Maria does more often, it irritates him. The second half showing at Liverpool made Van Gaal to comment, “We are running with the ball, unnecessary losses of the ball, so that was not so good." Though he didn’t mention names, later reports suggest it was aimed at Di Maria and most news outlets in England have since reported an alleged bust-up between the player and the manager.
Against Liverpool, despite providing a sublime assist for Juan Mata’ s second goal and a pass which made Emre Can foul Daley Blind, Di Maria was guilty of placing several wayward passes and one aimless back pass which wreaked havoc in the defense and nearly ended in a Liverpool goal and therefore earning Van Gaal’s wrath.
This season United has not been particularly prolific in creating chances. A move typically starts from a defender and after a couple of back and forth passes with the keeper, the ball finds its way to midfielder A which he shunts it lethargically to B and several sideways arching long-passes from left to right and right to left later, it reaches the opposition penalty box. The move starts to look promising and then Di Maria gets on the ball and spoils it! The whole cycle is repeated until he spoils it again. When creating a chance itself is a rarity, spoiling it cheaply becomes all the more criminal so you can easily understand the pain of a manager.
His passing accuracy stands at a worrying 78 per cent while his crossing has been dire. Out of 129 crosses, only a meager 18 per cent reached its intended target. Overall Di Maria has proved to be a liability in possession.
Comparison with Ashley Young
It’s bizarre that we are comparing Di Maria with Ashley Young and it’s even more bizarre and unbelievable that Young is relatively surpassing Di Maria. Nobody would have ever expected Ashley Young of all people to take on Di Maria and comfortably emerge as a better player, but that’s how things are at the moment.
While not being very flashy and spectacular, Ashley Young has done a simple but efficient job in Di Maria’s absence. He crosses the ball well and doesn’t do many mistakes. In the last two games against Tottenham and Liverpool (until Di Maria came on), United has been very impressive on the left side of the pitch. Young, Fellaini and Blind combination has worked wonderfully well and LVG may want to keep the formula intact.
The English Premier league is a tough league for a player like Di Maria whose game is built on running with the ball. The physicality of the defenders and lenient refereeing makes it difficult to carry the ball for more than two meters without inviting a crunching tackle. Di Maria being so slight it has been easy for defenders to deal with him. But then, players like Mata and David Silva have coped impressively well in the league despite carrying a small frame. Maybe what Di Maria needs is time.
It takes time to adjust to the steely and gloomy weather in England. It takes time to get to grips with a new playing style. It takes time to forget the perceived injustice delivered to him in Madrid. It takes time to get over the burglary attempt at his house. It takes time, and we should give him that.