Angel Di Maria and Manchester United: a marriage doomed to failure
He just cannot let it go. Every now Angel Di Maria pops up to discuss just how happy he is in Paris after a tumultuous period in northern England. One might think that Di Maria was forced into modern slavery in Manchester. It was the opposite, in fact. The Argentine was fairly compensated to the tune of around £140,000 per week after tax. Yet, with some Manchester United fans still pining for the club’s temporary number seven, why exactly can’t both parties just move on?
Di Maria comments this week add to the feeling that the marriage between player and club was doomed from the start. It shouldn’t have been that way. Di Maria arrived amidst much fanfare in a British transfer record deal worth £59.7 million, and was praised as a potential saviour after the disastrous David Moyes era.
The Argentine midfielder was supposed to be the kind of signing that would re-establish United as a global superpower on the pitch – not just off it. The ramifications turned out to be, predominantly, the opposite, with Di Maria’s tenure and subsequent departure only souring the Red Devils’ reputation.
There is no single party to blame. Blame Paris Saint Germain, for not passing Financial Fair Play, which eliminated the Qatari-owned club from the running for the player’s signature. Blame Jorge Mendes, the super-agent who engineers transfers for his own profiteering. Blame Di Maria, for never really giving his new club a chance. Or blame United, and in particular Louis van Gaal, who was clearly unable to best utilise the talent. The reality is, they’ve all played a part.
Two months after joining United, Di Maria did himself no favours in an interview with French broadcaster Telefoot, confessing that “PSG, I think they had a money problem and couldn’t buy players.”
“This is the main reason I didn’t go there. Playing in the French League would please a lot of players. Now I’m in the English league. But you never know, there is a lot of movements in football. You can never predict where you’re going to play.”
It is not the musing of man happy with a move forced rather than sought. It was the first sign that Di Maria’s stay in Manchester was ever only going to be a rental;never long for the north of England. His family was not happy either and a man so dedicated to family lief could never be happy as a result.
"The Argentine midfielder was supposed to be the kind of signing that would re-establish United as a global superpower. The ramifications turned out to be the opposite."
Despite early flashes of brilliance, particularly early in his time at the club, Di Maria could never recapture the magic that encouraged United to spend a record sum. The form that Carlo Ancelotti had so brilliantly garnered from the Argentine in Real Madrid’s Champions League winning campaign in 2013/14 was nowhere to be found.
Seemingly though, on arrival in Paris, Di Maria picked up where he left off in Madrid. He is already one of the very best players in the Paris Saint Germain squad.
The winger played a significant part in his own failure at Old Trafford, but Van Gaal’s use of the player must be called into question. Di Maria played five different positions at United – constantly shuffling around the team: left-wing, left side of midfield, number 10 and shadow striker. At times, though, Di Maria could barely complete a cross, such as in his cameo at home to West Bromwich Albion.
This week, with the Champions League quarter finals beckoning, Di Maria paused once again to reflect on his time at United. In keeping with the past, the player blames the club for his failure.
“It’s more that they didn’t let me settle properly than I couldn’t settle,” Di Maria told BBC Football Focus. “I decided to leave, not only to be happy but to win things. I left and that team are still playing the same way – out of European competitions, far from being champions of the Premier League.
“I don’t think it was my fault or the fault of my teammates. I did all I could every time I was given the opportunity. I started a game in one position, then the next game in another. I scored goals playing in one position, then suddenly the next game I was picked to play in a different position. I think this also didn’t help me settle.”
Data from Di Maria’s most recent league campaigns at Paris Saint Germain, United and Real Madrid, supports the thesis that he wasn’t the same player at Old Trafford. Or, alternatively, that the winger wasn’t used in the most effective way during his time in England.
*Paris Saint Germain season in progress.
Unsurprisingly, the data shows that Di Maria was best utilised in Madrid and Paris. In fact he was close to his career best form in his final season at Bernabéu, where by any metric, the player’s creativity was killed in Manchester.
"The winger played a significant part in his own failure at Old Trafford, but Van Gaal’s use of the player must be called into question. Di Maria played five different positions at United – constantly shuffling around the team."
In a similar number of games Di Maria scored fewer goals, created fewer chances and made fewer assists at United. He was less involved in the game too: making fewer successful and key passes. The only real success he found during a lone season at Old Trafford was in Van Gaal’s briefly used diamond formation. Once arriving in Paris, however, the Argentine has become a man unleashed.
“Manchester was a sad experience,” Di Maria once said. “Things did not go the way I expected, I was disappointed. I don’t remember what happened and I don’t want to remember.
”My last season at Real was very good; it’s in the same vein here. Every day here I feel better and better integrated into the team, the club and the city and that’s reflected in my performances.”
Perhaps Di Maria didn’t try hard enough to make it work. Perhaps United didn’t either. After all, while there’s a lot that can be changed on the pitch, there is much less room for manoeuvre if a player is unhappy. Di Maria was certainly that.
In the end, Manchester wasn’t meant for him; nor Di Maria for the club. An expensive mistake from which it’s time all moved on.