Following a disastrous 2013/2014 campaign for Manchester United which saw the club finish seventh in the league and cost David Moyes his job, it was evident that the squad required a massive overhaul, and that a change in the style of play was necessary. Louis van Gaal was appointed as head coach and oversaw a summer of spending; £150 million was shelled out as five players were brought in, while as many as thirteen were allowed to leave as Van Gaal went about setting his stamp on the club and implementing his philosophy to steer United toward success. And with the first three months of the season gone, one player in particular has stood out from the rest of the pack, highlighting more than anyone else the change in emphasis Van Gaal has brought to our play so far- Angel Di Maria.
In stark contrast to United, the 26 year old Rosario native had enjoyed a highly successful 2013/2014 season and was in the best form of his career. He played a pivotal role in Real Madrid’s ‘La Decima’ triumph, and was Man of the Match in the final after a dazzling performance helped Los Blancos overcome arch-rivals Athletico 4-1 after extra time.
Di Maria carried on his fine form into the World Cup in Brazil, but his involvement was cut short as he suffered an injury in the quarter final and was ruled out for the rest of the tournament, which Argentina finished as runners up to Germany. His limited yet vital contributions for Argentina were rewarded with a place on the 10 man shortlist for FIFA’s Golden Ball award for the tournament’s best player as Di Maria established himself as one of the most lethal attacking players on the planet, a huge asset for any team at the highest level.
Strangely, however, his employers did not feel the same. Such is Florentino Perez’s “Galactico” policy at Real Madrid that the club are always looking to sign star names every season to boost their image. James Rodriguez had become one of the hottest properties in world football following a stellar World Cup for Columbia, and Madrid duly snapped up the attacking midfielder from AS Monaco for a fee of €80 million. This move cast doubt over Di Maria’s role in the team, and ultimately resulted with the Argentine spectacularly falling out with the club as they tried to force him out.
Needing no invitation to sign a player of his calibre, United swooped in and were able to fend off interest from Paris St. Germain to make him their record signing for a mammoth £59.7 million, which is also the highest fee paid by a British club. United fans could scarcely believe that despite being unable to offer Champions League football, they had landed one of the worlds best players, a marquee signing that the club desperately required after a dismal season. The expectations on Di Maria further increased when he was handed the legendary number 7 shirt, and everyone at the club hoped that he would hit the ground running.
And boy, has he hit the ground running!
Such has been the start of his United career that Di Maria’s transfer fee is no longer mentioned; it is universally accepted that the Argentine is worth the enormous fee that was shelled out for him, a testament to his class and the impact he has had thus far. His adaptation to the Premier League has been incredibly quick, and he seems unperturbed by the physical nature of the English game. He has already scored 3 goals and assisted 6 times in his short span as a United player, contributing to a goal every game and playing a part in almost half of United’s goals this season.
The Argentine’s arrival has transformed United into a completely different team, with his pace and energy allowing him to transform defence into attack with a single lung-bursting run through the heart of the opposition’s defence, as he demonstrated for the second goal in the game against Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford, which was his home debut. Finally, United have a player capable of picking up the ball in their own half and bursting down the flank, turning the game on it’s head and rendering the opposition’s tactics redundant.
Di Maria’s runs with the ball force his teammates to sprint alongside or ahead of him into space to continue the attack, thus making United a very dynamic attacking unit, a far cry from the slow, pedestrian attacking approach of the previous season, and seasons before. Di Maria’s abilities make him a lethal counter attacker, a characteristic which was made full use of by Louis van Gaal when he played the Argentine furthest forward alongside Robin van Persie in a 3-5-2 formation against Arsenal at the Emirates last week, a game in which the Argentine was heading into on the back of a few below-par performances in a red shirt. United soaked up the pressure and hit the Gunners on the counter attack, with the electric Di Maria running at the Gunners defence with pace and causing them all sorts of problems, eventually picking up the assist for Rooney’s goal in a classic counter attack. His versatility, workrate and tactical reasoning gives United a vast number of options going forward, making him an invaluable component of Van Gaal’s system.
And then of course, is his ability on the ball. Blessed with incredible dribbling ability and ball control, Di Maria relishes running at defenders and is capable of going past them with absolute ease, a sight United fans have not been treated to since Cristiano Ronaldo left the club five years ago. Fast, tricky wingers have been a hallmark of United’s style of play over the years, and Di Maria is a welcome return to that notion. There is only one thing on his mind when he picks up the ball in space, and that is to run at the opposition with it. The Premier League seems to suit his game, and he is finding more opportunities to run at defenders with pace, something he has embraced fully.
In addition, he possesses an incredible passing range, allowing him to thread the final killer pass with amazing accuracy, whilst his crossing ability is amongst the best in game, as he is capable of whipping the ball into a dangerous area with great pace on it on a consistent basis. This makes him a set piece specialist, with United posing a greater risk at set-pieces because of his delivery. Little wonder that he is one of the leading assist makers in the game; he is the most creative player in all of Europe in 2014, racking up an incredible 20 assists so far this year, with 6 assists in 9 games for United, all this despite being completely one-footed, as he barely uses his right foot.
The Argentine is also never afraid of attempting something audacious, and is capable of producing moments of pure magic that lift the supporters off their seats. In a symbolic moment during the second half of the game against QPR, Di Maria tracked back deep into his own half, won the ball at the by-line, wrestled past the player he’d just dispossessed, and just before being challenged by another player, laid the ball onto a teammate with an incredibly nonchalant backheel, leading to the fans roaring in absolute delight whilst he jogged on as if nothing special had happened.
It was a moment of panache that the Old Trafford faithful hadn’t witnessed for some time; the swagger had returned to United’s play, and Di Maria was at the forefront of it. Later on in the game he produced an incredible pass from the outside of his left foot to Robin van Persie, which had the fans gasp in absolute awe. They were being thrilled once again, and took to their new hero instantly, realising just how lucky they are to watch one of the world’s best in a red shirt. Real Madrid’s loss is truly United’s gain, and at the Theater of Dreams, Di Maria has the perfect stage to showcase his ability to the world, whilst receiving the love and affection he craves.
His vast array of flicks and mazy dribbles have been a prominent feature of his play in subsequent games, and his deft chipped finish against Leicester City was simply incredible. Di Maria is a true number 7, similar to Ronaldo and Cantona, the type of player the fans pay to watch; a player United have been lacking for quite some time. His arrival has galvanised the club and struck fear into the heart of opponents, who know that they are in for a torrid time with Di Maria running right at the them. The fear factor that United once possessed is slowly coming back, and the confidence throughout the club has greatly improved, knowing that they have one of the best match-winners in the game in their ranks; a player who is the envy of teams all around the world.
Are Manchester United slowly heading back to where they belong under Louis van Gaal? Only time will tell. But with Angel Di Maria in our ranks, there is absolutely no reason to think otherwise.