Manchester United woes deja vu for Angel Di Maria
A tough month or two for Angel Di Maria reached some sort of nadir this weekend. The reported comments of Charly Rexach, the former Barcelona coach and recently appointed member of the club's new technical committee, that the Argentina midfielder had been "too ugly" for Real Madrid accompanied another flat performance for his new club Manchester United against Sunderland. Di Maria's quiet Saturday afternoon saw him hooked in favour of Adnan Januzaj at the interval, giving him some extra time to stew over his current difficulties.
Actually, beyond the cheap headlines, Rexach has probably hit the nail flush on the head. The veteran has denied giving an interview to the outlet that quoted him, Regio 7, saying his comments were made at a private dinner back in September. Either way, it's not really making a judgment on the contours of Di Maria's jawbone, but more on the cut of his commercial jib. "[Florentino] Perez is selling an international brand," he was also quoted as saying.
Therein, it always seemed, lay the genesis of his departure from the Bernabeu. The sporting case for keeping Di Maria in the Spanish capital was overwhelming. The numbers told you that, starting with his 17 assists in La Liga alone last season. His man-of-the-match performance in the Champions League final, helping El Real to eventually overwhelm Atletico on the way to La Decima, did likewise. Carlo Ancelotti's reluctance to let him go, however, said it more eloquently than any figures or any individual display. He was no A-list shirt-seller, though, and would never be remunerated as such.
If Di Maria has always cut a rare elegance on the ball, whether slaloming between defenders or picking a pass from a static position, he does not carry himself like a star. He has always been willing to do a job for the team; to his advantage last season, when his reinvention in a deeper position as part of a midfield three was a smash hit and proved he could coexist with Gareth Bale, the player who most imagined would squeeze him out of the club. At other times, such as in the Copa del Rey final, he played as a narrow wide player in a 4-4-2, a reshuffle compensating for the absence of the injured Cristiano Ronaldo.
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One interpretation is that Di Maria was doing anything to make himself indispensible at a club he was desperate not to leave. The other is that he was genuinely altruistic. Selflessness is a quality that rarely gets its just reward in football. Since arriving at Old Trafford, Di Maria has already filled a number of positions across midfield and attack for Louis van Gaal's work-in-progress lineup, and it has been to his detriment.
Wayne Rooney's supportive comments after Saturday's game that he thinks his teammate will "figure it out" were fair, and certainly well intentioned. You do wonder, though, if perhaps the onus of finding the solution should be rather less on Di Maria, and more on his manager. It is not unrealistic or unreasonable to expect a team -- especially one being all but built from scratch -- should be built around a 59.7-million-pound signing, rather than said signing being used to fill in wherever seems necessary in that particular week.
Di Maria's 45 minutes of misery loitering rather aimlessly on the right against Sunderland recalled his up-and-down first season in Europe with Benfica. He was stationed in pretty much the same spot by Jose Antonio Camacho after pitching up in summer 2007, and looked like what he was: a talent that the gruff Spanish coach had little idea what to with. It was only after Jorge Jesus' appointment that Di Maria really caught fire in Lisbon, switching over to the left in a rampantly attacking side that stretched opponents to the breaking point, scoring 124 times as they swept all before them domestically and reached the Europa League quarterfinals.
It is to Di Maria's considerable credit that after his big-money move to Madrid in 2010, he flourished after being returned to the right, albeit of a front three rather than the 4-4-2 that Benfica tended to practice. Put in the context of his career shortly after his 27th birthday, however, it looks more like a repeating pattern. Play, succeed, get moved.
This sequence should not be allowed to continue at United, and not just because of how much Di Maria cost. He has never been as effective in his entire career as he was in that withdrawn midfield role last season and this is exactly where United need him; from where he can see the game in front of him, from where he can direct operations and from where he has the space to burst into one of those irresistible dribbles through the centre of the pitch.
All this is not to say that Di Maria doesn't have his part of the responsibility for his current trough. He often looks sullen and downhearted. Di Maria's international coach, Tata Martino, made a tactful and fair assessment of his charge before the friendly with Portugal in November, saying that his form was "possibly more typical of a player going to a new club than the very first few games when he burst onto the scene and did so well."
Martino also claimed in the same news conference that Di Maria could play in a number of different roles for the team "expertly," which perhaps puts Van Gaal's use of him in a different light. The suspicion, though, is that Di Maria needs a place, and position, to call his own to regularly be the defining influence that he can be, and that United expect him to be. At the moment, one could forgive him for having a sense of deja vu.
Andy Brassell is a writer/broadcaster/producer for BBC, Guardian, Mirror, Talksport, BT Sport, WhoScored. Follow him on Twitter @andybrassell.