The Premier League has witnessed its fair share of big-money flops over the last five years. Manchester United have made some contributions to that list over the years, but few would have foreseen Angel di Maria being branded as a flop given the extraordinary start that he made to his United career. The Argentine was expected to be the centre of United’s revival. Expectations soared through the roofs after his brilliant start to life in the Premier League. Of late, the focus has been on United’s impeccable form. Betfair now expects United to finish in the Premier League top four at betting odds of 4/5.
After becoming the most expensive player in British football history following the £60 million move from Real Madrid, Di Maria made an instant impact by contributing three goals and four assists in his first six matches. Since then, the goals may have dried up, but Manchester United’s form has kept on improving. Despite not being in the media attention much, Di Maria was expected to struggle at some point in the season.
Even the top players go through spells when they struggle. The lull experienced by Di Maria towards the end of 2014 was seen as only a case of the 27-year-old taking time to adjust to the Premier League. It is only in the last few weeks that serious concerns have been raised about Di Maria’s form.
Louis Van Gaal certainly did not help matters by taking off Di Maria at half-time in the recent 2-0 win over Sunderland. It has now put the pressure firmly on the shoulders of the former Real Madrid star. The pressure on Di Maria does not come just from the transfer fee, but from expectations that he would be a key figure in getting the club back into the top four at any cost this campaign.
Since the turn of the year, Di Maria has scored only one goal and created two assists in 11 matches. The statistic gets even poor considering that the goal and one of the assist came against Yeovil Town and Burnley respectively. Even with the deepest respect to the opposition, these are not the top teams in the league or in Europe. Di Maria was brought into perform well week in and week out, more importantly to shine against the top teams.
Di Maria has just one assist to his name in matches against teams from the top of the table. This assist came in the 2-1 win over Arsenal back in November. Questions have been asked about the 27-year-old’s form and rightly so. The likes of Wayne Rooney have been quick to defend Di Maria, while Van Gaal has become the latest addition.
“Every player can have that kind of match – Di Maria is not the only player who has suffered a bad day,” said Van Gaal.
Undoubtedly, a lot of the fingers will be pointed out at Van Gaal. Apart from switching formations and style of play on numerous occasions this season, the former Barcelona boss has also been criticised for using players out of their natural position. Rooney has been featuring in the midfield for several weeks now. Yet, Van Gaal recently pointed the fingers of blame at the lack of a 20 goal per season striker. Rooney has crossed this tally in four out of his 11 seasons at the club. Robin van Persie may not be firing on all cylinders, but the Dutchman has scored 20+ goals in four out of his last seven seasons (including his Arsenal days).
Rooney is the highest placed United player to be on the list of players backed to finish as the Golden Boot winner. Betfair gives lengthy odds of 50/1 for Rooney, who has 11 league goals, to finish as the top scorer this season.
Van Gaal’s approach with Di Maria is no different, as the Argentine has been used in every conceivable position in the midfield and forward areas. He has had the most success playing in a central role ahead of two defensive midfielders. Di Maria has been used in this position seven times and he has three goals and five assists in these matches. Constantly shuffling through various positions certainly has hit his confidence levels quite badly. Di Maria is struggling to even make the easy passes now and he is starting to get stuck in a vicious cycle.
Comparisons have already been made to Mesut Ozil, who had a similar spring in step for the first few months before fading away. The Arsenal midfielder is yet to reach the heights that he hit immediately after his £40 million move from Madrid. In the case of Ozil, tiredness was mentioned as a potential reason. The same cannot be said of Di Maria, who has featured in only 19 matches so far. The prospect of a tired Di Maria, when he is required to play more than 50 matches a campaign, looks frightening now.
Van Gaal had the usual excuse of a foreign player trying to adapt to the English league. It may be true to a certain extent, but such a foreign talent also needs the help from the manager. The Dutchman could have certainly built the team around Di Maria after witnessing his early season form. Having made the mistake of not doing so, it is up to United and Di Maria to get back on song once again. The talk surrounding United finishing in the top four has occupied the media presence until now and it is only in the last few weeks that the Di Maria story is gathering pace.
Once Di Maria gets classified as a flop by the media, it becomes tough to recover. The Argentine needs to be well aware of this aspect.