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Tactical Analysis: Why Angel Di Maria may not start against Liverpool this weekend

Zaid Khan
4.72K   //    18 Mar 2015, 11:06 IST
Di Maria may not get a chance to prove his worth at Anfield this weekend

Manchester United’s first half demolition of Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday wasn’t the only thing which surprised everyone. It was how wonderfully the midfield triumvirate of Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata worked in tandem in order to absolutely tear Spurs’ defense to shreds and give them all sorts of problems.

Suddenly, it appeared as if Louis Van Gaal might have just stumbled upon his best combination, the combination which perfectly resonates his philosophy and gives his side the balance they’ve been yearning for all season.

However, the biggest problem regarding this entire development was that it didn’t involve United’s 59 million pound poster boy Angel Di Maria. The Argentine winger picked up a red card for a combination of simulation and dissent against Arsenal in the FA Cup, and was consequently missing for the fixture against Pochettino’s men. 

Di Maria is expected to be fit for United’s crunch trip to Anfield which will be a fixture that will either dent their top four aspirations significantly or add momentous amount of substance of it. Given the exquisite performances which Carrick, Herrera and Mata exuded against Tottenham, it is difficult to make a case for Angel Di Maria to start against The Kop.

The Champions League final man of the match enjoyed a thrilling start to life at Old Trafford but has undergone a confidence crisis of late due to off-field, as well as on-field issues. His performances have dipped in terms of quality and at times it looks as though the Argentine is not interested in playing for the Old Trafford club.

On the other hand, United’s style of play without Di Maria was an absolute delight to watch. Daley Blind might not be Van Gaal’s permanent choice at left-back but there is every chance that the Dutchman will reinstate his compatriot in the very same position this Sunday.

Why a fresh tactical setup worked for Van Gaal against Spurs

The former Ajax midfielder made intriguing overlapping runs on the left flank in order to complement Ashley Young and delivered some beautiful crosses from his crafty left foot into the 18-yard box. Moreover, he kept Kyle Walker, Andros Townsend and Nacer Chadli at bay with aplomb, courtesy of some brilliant awareness and timely interventions. 

Michael Carrick, who recently returned from injury once again proved why he is the most integral part of Louis Van Gaal’s setup. Acting as United’s linchpin in midfield against Spurs, the former Tottenham man scored one goal, setup one more, completed 42 passes, made 2 tackles, created a total of six chances (of which 2 led to goals) and possessed an 85% pass accuracy throughout the match.

His heat map below indicates how buzzing he was in midfield for the Red Devils, popping up virtually almost everywhere in the middle of the park

Carrick’s heatmap vs Spurs (Image courtesy: Squawka)

Another man who put in a colossal shift on Sunday was 29 million summer acquisition Ander Herrera. Having found opportunities hard to come by for most part of his maiden season at Old Trafford, Herrera has grabbed the chance thrown at him phenomenally. The Spaniard has become a fan favorite during his short-term tenure at the Theatre of Dreams, and he further cemented that status on Sunday evening with a beautiful all round midfield performance.

Herrera’s heat map indicates how active he was on the right hand side of the pitch. (Image courtesy: Squawka)

Although Marouane Fellaini took home the official Man Of The Match award, stats suggest Herrera would have been a worthier winner of this award. He completed the maximum number of passes on the pitch (52), won the maximum amount of tackles (3), and possessed an astounding 91% pass accuracy coupled with 2 successful take-ons. Moreover, his chemistry with compatriot Juan Mata hinted at a blossoming midfield pairing between the pair.

Herrera’s passes on Sunday evening. He completed 52 passes out of a total of 57. (Image courtesy: Squawka)

There were indications that Herrera and Mata gave United’s usually flat midfield a different wavelength, with the duo exchanging neat one-two’s, and keeping the play ticking with a quick interchange of passes. Additionally, the variety which the pair provides in the center of the park is invaluable.

Di Maria is one of the most one-footed players in the world whereas we’re all well aware of Young’s bias nature towards his right foot. When these two player’s start on either flank for United, their style of play becomes predictable and too one dimensional. 

Juan Mata’s impact vs Spurs playing out wide

Completing the trio was Juan Mata, who started the match in a relatively unfamiliar position and was therefore expected to not perform as well as he eventually ended up performing. The former Chelsea midfielder tormented Danny Rose all afternoon, using his small physical frame to his advantage, forcing the English left-back to commit a foul with his chicanery and clever movement.

Stretching the play from the right flank and providing cutting edge incisive passes for Fellaini and Wayne Rooney upfront, Mata was the most active player in the final third on the pitch, completing 18 passes.

Juan Mata’s passes against Tottenham indicate how he acted as a livewire on the right flank. (Image courtesy: Squawka)

Now, as far as Di Maria’s inclusion in the United starting eleven is concerned, it is a straight shoot-out between the Argentine and Mata. 

A decision to make for Van Gaal

Removing Fellaini from the side would be a foolish move, given Liverpool defence’s struggle to compete in the air, especially Martin Skrtel’s. The Belgians strong physical stature along with his handy ability to bully opponents in the air is no secret and he could prove to be a vital weapon against Brendan Rodgers’ side. Coming to Ashley Young, it would be cruel to replace the former Aston Villa man.

He has made the left flank his own by putting in ravishing performances week in week out with sheer hard work. Perhaps the only factor which could play into Di Maria’s favor can be his blistering pace down the flanks which could prove advantageous during a one vs one counter attack. But, given Van Gaal’s obsession of keeping hold of the ball and instructing his wingers to cut in rather than go to the byline in order to cross could nullify the Argentine’s sole asset.

At this moment in time, notwithstanding any injuries to the midfield trio which started on Sunday or a change in tactics or philosophy by Van Gaal, it is almost impossible for Di Maria to start at Anfield. As a Manchester United fan myself, I had a plethora of expectations from Di Maria but he hasn’t lived up to any of those until now at least.

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Zaid Khan
21. Manchester United. Barcelona. Insomnia.
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