Away from the pitch, away from packed stadiums and the pizazz of the modern game, it can be difficult to get a grasp on a footballer’s true feelings. Most interviews paint portraits of safe, humble, team players who are respectful to their opponents whilst offering essentially zilch in terms of engaging insight into their craft. So, frequently, one must turn to the pitch in order to form a decent picture of a player’s current mental state. On Monday night, Angel Di Maria didn’t so much offer up an insight as a full-on presentation, featuring a foolish sending off for two equally unnecessary yellow cards and slack, uninterested defending for Arsenal’s opening goal which ended up being hugely significant in Manchester United’s FA Cup quarter final exit. As performances go, this was easily the Argentine’s worst in a red shirt.
Firstly, some perspective. Antonio Valencia, United’s best player on the night according to Louis van Gaal but in reality, a stumbling relic from Sir Alex Ferguson’s time in charge, was poor, again; Daley Blind struggled and was frequently loose in possession; Adnan Januzaj’s second half dive was equally as shameful as Di Maria’s and Marouane Fellaini’s uncanny ability to concede free kicks scuppered the home side’s attempts to latch onto some form of rhythm on more than one occasion. But, for their faults, they remained on the pitch when United fell behind to Danny Welbeck’s second half strike (admittedly assisted by Valencia). Di Maria, on the other hand, did not.
It was as self-destructive and pointless a sending off as you could ever hope to see. Perhaps there was a modicum of reasoning in Di Maria’s mind as to his initial decision to dive; Nacho Monreal had made rather painful contact with the back of his leg earlier in the half just in front of the penalty area, but nothing was given. Perhaps buying a free kick was El Fideo’s attempt to even things out, but he tumbled under little contact from Aaron Ramsey on the edge of the area, and was rightly booked. The reaction, to protest his innocence when he was clearly guilty was bad enough; to even consider touching Michael Oliver in any fashion, much less a pointed prod in his back having just been cautioned with United trailing bordered on insanity. He had no rhyme, reason or recourse, just pointless, directionless frustration, and it earned him an early bath. Moments of madness happen in football, of course they do; this, however, was several in quick succession.
How nice it’d be to brush this off as a blip, when the reality is that this sending off was the culmination of a difficult few months for the Argentine. The attempted armed robbery of his house in Cheshire at the start of the year in the presence of his wife and child must have made settling into North West England exceptionally difficult, no one could blame him for that, but Di Maria has struggled for form even before an injury forced him off against Hull City in November. Since then, United may not have fully embraced Van Gaal’s oft-touted philosophy, but they have adopted a cautious, possession-based style. Possession without purpose, as Paul Scholes put it recently on BT Sport. It’s slow, frequently ponderous and creates little in the way of space or clear-cut chances. Coming back into the fold as a fast, energetic and creative presence when this sort of patient play is becoming the norm was never likely to bring out the best in Di Maria.
He’s a livewire, one of few players in the current United crop who can elicit a jolt of excitement when he looks to run at defenders, but all too frequently, the space hasn’t there for him to exploit. Twice apiece in games against Sunderland and Newcastle United, Di Maria attempted to force some room for himself by running full-tilt at the opposing backline, but was crowded out and dispossessed with alarming ease. Each time, a dangerous counter attack was then immediately launched that could easily have led to a goal were it not for wayward shooting or the presence of David de Gea. The suggestion has been made that Di Maria should be exempt from criticism for being one of the few in this current United side willing to take risks; simply put, there’s risk-taking, and there’s careless play that puts your faltering backline and long-suffering goalkeeper under needless pressure, and these instances are firmly in the latter camp. Even more concerning has been the lack of interest he’s shown in tracking back and assisting his colleagues, a hallmark of his time in Madrid that has been conspicuously absent at United. For as brilliant as it was to see Di Maria curl in that sumptuous cross onto the top of Wayne Rooney’s head for United’s equaliser, he still had two chances to shut down Arsenal’s opening goal. The first saw him allow Mesut Ozil to skip through to the edge of the United penalty area unopposed before giving Nacho Monreal a generous wide berth just before the Spaniard slotted home.
It’s becoming difficult to determine how and if Angel Di Maria fits into Van Gaal’s plans . The Dutchman is happy to switch up his formation and personnel when needs and results must, but his tactics are locked in to err on the side of caution. It’s a methodical, calculating approach, at odds with the faster-paced, incisive football that Di Maria was used to at Real Madrid and still enjoys with his national side. On the one hand, this form is hugely disappointing when you consider that he’s been given more games to adjust to his role in this new set-up than the likes of Radamel Falcao, Juan Mata or Ander Herrera.
Then again, surely his talents are worth exploiting, his instincts worth encouraging. Under Van Gaal, he looks blunted, but the Dutchman cannot be immune to the pressures of finishing in the top four. Current perception from both inside and outside of the club’s fanbase is that his side are far from favourites to do so, and given their recent form, that isn’t baseless. During his time in charge of the club, Van Gaal has shown himself to be flexible on occasions, but it’s not unfair to assume that a switch to a more dynamic, attacking set-up in order to get the best out of his number 7 (and several others, for that matter) is unlikely.
It makes you wonder why the deal was made in the first place. Beyond being a great piece of PR, that £60m transfer fee is starting to become a stick with which to beat Di Maria with, which is the last thing either he or the club needs as the battle for a top four finish intensifies. Football is an increasingly temporary environment; big players needn’t ride out their contracts if they don’t feel settled or should things fail to click, and if Di Maria upped sticks to Paris this summer, it shouldn’t provoke huge gasps of surprise. But should it come to pass, it’d say as much of the man’s inability to adapt to his new surrounds as it would of Van Gaal’s lack of flexibility. With United’s season now solely centred on Champions League qualification, and meetings with five members of Premier League’s top seven to come, there could scarcely be a worse time for the club’s record signing to be faltering.