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Why Angel Di Maria was the wrong player for Manchester United and Louis van Gaal

Matt Gault
Editor's Pick
5.43K   //    01 Aug 2015, 18:52 IST
Angel Di Maria was never the sort of player Manchester United expected him to be

In the coming days, Angel Di Maria will – avoiding any cataclysmic breakdown in negotiations – sign for PSG, just 12 months after joining Manchester United for a British record fee of £59.7m. The increasingly perplexing saga of the Argentine international has gone sour in recent weeks after he failed to report to United’s pre-season tour in the USA after being granted extended leave following the Copa America.

Fans have been embittered by their most expensive player going AWOL ahead of a season which many had tipped as being his time to breakthrough and show his world class ability in the Premier League consistently. But alas, there will be no happy ending to Di Maria’s time at Old Traford.

Instead, Louis van Gaal is left with a hole in his attacking artillery and United are left with the ignominy of laying claim to arguably the greatest flop in English football’s long and storied history.

Van Gaal and Di Maria combination never meant to work

So, what went wrong? How did a player who was viewed as a shining jewel in the considerable arsenal of Real Madrid’s attacking pool fall so dramatically from prominence? A man of the match performance in the Champions League final and a starring role in Argentina’s run to the World Cup final would have fooled many into believing he was the right man to assuage the anguish left at Old Trafford from David Moyes’ doomed spell in charge.

However, tough as it is for United fans to admit, he was never the player to propel Van Gaal’s reign to great heights. He was a pie in the sky signing, a Woodwardian ploy to inject a superstar feeling back into a club that had seemed to lose its identity since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Looking back, it is difficult to imagine the Dutch manager pressing for the signing of Di Maria, despite his obvious qualities. When the Dutchman took over last summer, he was greeted by a squad desperately in need of bolstering.

The central midfield position remained a problem as Marouane Fellaini had failed to shine in his debut campaign and he was charged with the task of rebuilding the entire defence after the departures of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra – three players who each had contributed massively to United’s successes in the last decade. However, at the end of the window, Louis van Gaal was left with Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, the striker signed on deadline day instead of a defender.

However, the problem is Di Maria himself. At 27, he is arguably at his peak physically and technically and could have flourished during his best years in a squad significantly rejuvenated by a much more focused transfer strategy this year which has seen the club bring in midfield reinforcements Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin, while Matteo Darmian will offer extra strength in defence.

In addition, there is also future superstar Memphis Depay, who will now most likely be expected to provide the box office now that Di Maria is all but gone. The Argentine could have thrived alongside the raft of fresh faces at United but it seems as though he is taking the easy way out of the Premier League as opposed to building himself back up to the form United envisioned when they splurged an unprecedented sum to pry him away from the Spanish capital.

Look at Mesut Ozil, who rode the criticism in his first season after arriving at Arsenal from Real with a hefty price tag and shone last year, becoming an integral cog in the Gunners’ attacking line-up. The German international now looks as though he will continue to assert his influence at the heart of Arsene Wenger’s attacking set-up. Di Maria however, has opted not to fight through the difficulties in favour of joining compatriots Javier Pastore and Ezequiel Lavezzi at the Parc des Princes.

Louis van Gaal needs to accept part of the blame

But is Van Gaal partly to blame? Perhaps. When the winger came to United, it was clear he was most effective as a left-sided midfielder, where his driving runs had regularly helped decimate defences in La Liga. At the beginning of the campaign, the winger looked comfortable and confident operating in his familiar role, shining in early season games against Leicester City and QPR.

However, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager sought to change his position and transform him into a creative hub in the centre. While he possesses the ability to unlock defences from the middle of the pitch, it was a regrettable misuse of his talents.

Louis van Gaal neved gave Di Maria a sustained run in his best position

More bewilderingly perhaps, Di Maria was even deployed as a striker, with Louis van Gaal citing a need for pace up top as the reason for the relocation. Against Southampton in January, Di Maria started in the centre-forward position, playing just off Robin van Persie, who too was struggling to find inspiration in a United shirt.

Following a fruitless performance and a 1-0 loss, Van Gaal was slammed by legendary United winger Lou Macari for his stupefying misuse of Di Maria. “I don’t think playing up front is the position for Di Maria. He’s better roaming all over the place. He likes a bit of freedom. He won’t like big centre-halves in behind him,” Macari said as per Bleacher Report.

Di Maria possess an abundance of natural pace and dribbling ability and Van Gaal can be blamed for neutralising that threat in expecting him to battle for the ball whilst leading the line. It is not his natural game and the player himself looked extremely out of sorts attempting to adapt. Some players can adapt easily, other excel sticking to their instincts.

Di Maria taking the easy way out

However, the player himself has chosen not to prove the sceptics wrong. His move to PSG has more than a whiff of a player seeking to escape the extraordinary demands of the toughest and most competitive league in the world. While there is plenty of quality on show in Ligue 1, it doesn’t compare to the Premier League and it is disappointing to see Di Maria bow out having not fully showcased his substantial quality in England.

Where does it leave United then? Well, they are set to lose around £15m so Di Maria will be regarded as a poor investment. It also increases the necessity for extra attacking firepower, especially with the departures of Nani and Van Persie.

In the end, United fans will wince when they are reminded of Di Maria in the future and, over time, they will come to accept that, despite all the excitement and hullabaloo surrounding his capture, he was never the right player for Manchester United.

Perhaps Depay will build the legacy as a United great that was expected of Di Maria. Only time will tell for the exciting Dutch winger, but it looks as though we have seen the last of Di Maria in England, and United are not necessarily worse off without him.

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Matt Gault
Matt is a freelance football writer. He contributes regularly to These Football Times, Back Page Football, 90Min and others. His work has been featured on The Guardian, World Soccer, Four Four Two and BBC Sport. He is also a keen follower of other sports and writes golf columns occasionally. Outside of work, he enjoys films, music and literature. He has a degree in English/Modern History and recently graduated with an MA Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @MattGault11 for further football musings.
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