Angel Di Maria’s inaugural season at Manchester United began with immense excitement but ended in failure. A Champions League winner and World Cup finalist, the £59.7 million superstar was expected to wreak havoc under Louis van Gaal.
The Argentine’s arrival belied the accepted notion of big players always electing to go to Champions League clubs, and his home debut belied the balderdash United fans had recently become accustomed to under a certain Scottish bloke the year before.
It was a home debut of astronomical proportions, one that almost single handedly awoke the club from its acrimonious post-Fergie slumber.
But that was as good as it got for Di Maria. Injury, form, personal issues, and bizarre formation changes have blemished his first season in England. Many have written off ‘Fideo’. Some have even questioned whether the midfielder deserves to be at Old Trafford next season.
United’s marquee signing has so far been largely peripheral to anything positive under Louis van Gaal, instead playing the role of an edgy, expensive misfit who at times resembles a young boy desperately lost in IKEA.
In a summer of excruciating football deprivation, Argentina’s Copa America game against Paraguay was blissful for two reasons: firstly, Argentina won 6-1, and I, as a neutral, have a strange obsession with watching a team get pumped. Secondly, and, most importantly, Di Maria was looking like his ominous best again – scoring twice and assisting once.
It was a performance that evoked memories of that mild Sunday afternoon back in September, with Di Maria effervescent in a dangerous syndicate of attacking bravado. This lachrymose IKEA dweller was suddenly gone.
Di Maria did enjoy a rip-roaring start at United. He followed up his blistering home debut with a stupendous goal against Leicester, running West Ham all over the place the week after, scoring in the win against Everton, and playing a big role in the win at the Emirates before injuring himself at home to Hull in late November.
This injury signalled an end to Di Maria’s tenacious form; his usual potency and threat disappeared under Louis van Gaal for the rest of the season. Several substandard performances on his return led to United’s record signing being consigned to the bench.
His red card in the FA Cup defeat to Arsenal was a fitting nadir for a player who had promised so much but delivered so little.
Watching Di Maria struggle with Premier League football last season was arguably worse than being subjected to those ghastly 3-5-2 performances, or even watching Phil Jones take corners.
That was because United had something special and nothing came of it. Not only is Di Maria the finest player at Louis van Gaal’s disposal, he has the conviction to single handedly turn games – an asset United miserably lacked last season during dry spells.
But despite being exactly what United need, Di Maria couldn’t have an impact on this episodically exciting team.
The Argentine was understandably overawed by the brutality of English football. But it was by no means the first time a La Liga import has suffered at the hands of the Premier League’s unprecedented physicality and speed.
In fact, Di Maria’s substandard season comes as no surprise; marred by hamstring, calf and pelvis injuries from November onwards, the midfielder has suffered at the hands of Louis van Gaal’s unpredictable methods in his first season as manager.
By playing in obscure positions in even more obscure formations in an alien culture, alongside being a victim of a burglary in January, Di Maria has momentarily lost that resolve which saw him dance through Atletico players in the Champions League final just a year ago.
The question we must now ask is this: how will Di Maria respond?
Can he ease into English football and manifest the same level of skill that previously ensured his place amongst the world’s elite attacking midfielders, or will he continue to retreat into his shell when the going gets tough, subsequently subsiding into pitiful mediocrity and sporadic appearances from the bench?
Only time will tell. But if Monday night was anything to go by, United fans can be confident of the former prevailing.
We saw glimpses of what Di Maria was capable of in his first season; that goal against Leicester, that mazy 70-yard dribble against Arsenal at the Emirates, his perfectly executed assist for Mata’s second at Anfield. It was there. That uniquely delicate attacking verve was there, but only in very small doses.
In his first full season at the club, the difference between being title challengers and fleeting members of another languid battle for 3rd spot could be Di Maria.
The midfielder is an irresistible force who, at his very best, can win games for his team. If Di Maria can sustain what he showed glimpses of last term (and in the Copa America) in the upcoming year, United will be an ominous prospect going forward.
Easier said than done. The Argentine has to compete with a plethora of attacking talent that excelled without him last season. Trying to avoid injury and, most decisively, acclimatise to the frenzy of the Premier League, is a testing prospect.
Di Maria endured a rocky start at Real Madrid in a fashion tantamount with his current predicament at United. Questions were asked about the midfielder but he duly responded in explosive fashion, going on to win numerous honours with the club.
Under the piercing lights of an expectant Old Trafford, Di Maria needs to do the same next year.