Paul Pogba’s tough start to life at Manchester United is reflective of the struggle the club has faced in turning record acquisitions into real success since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. In fact United has failed to extract the most from its last three record purchases: Pogba, Angel di Maria, and Juan Mata. While the players’ performances, attitude and commitment can sometimes be called into question, it also clear that the United has made precious few plans for what to do with the club’s shiny new toys.
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?
In the end it was just four words that ended Angel di Maria’s time at Manchester United: Louis van Gaal’s curt assertion that he “does not know why” the Argentinian failed to board a plane to the United States on Saturday. Four words that will hasten Di Maria’s transfer to Paris Saint-Germain in the coming week and bring the player’s spell at Old Trafford to a close in something approaching ignominy.
Already on a short clock – with a deal almost agreed between United and Qatari-backed PSG – United’s record purchase is unlikely to play for the club again. It is just 11 months since the player joined in British-record deal. Indeed, with the saga approaching a close the narrative will turn to who is at fault for Di Maria’s exit. After all, United paid some £59 million for the talented forward who should have accelerated the club’s return to the sport’s élite.
In the United camp there is little doubt about Di Maria’s motivation for missing a routine flight: the impending move to Parc de Princes. While the ink is not yet dry on a deal, with the clubs reportedly negotiating a fee in the region of £45 million, the widely held assumption is that Di Maria will line up in the Blue of Les Parisiens in the coming season
Whether Di Maria was encouraged to stay home by the club, or agent Jorge Mendes, on Saturday PSG manager Laurent Blanc did little to pour cold water on an inflammatory situation.
“There is an anticipation he is going to come to the US but as to which jersey he is going to wear, we don’t know yet,” said former United defender Blanc. “If he does make a change hopefully it will be for Paris Saint-Germain. Of course a coach would like to see somebody like him.”
The fallout from Di Maria’s transfer brought supporters to the sharp end of the debate about the player’s failure at United, although the truth is rarely as stark as often presented in the polarised world of social media.
Di Maria’s fall has been steep though – from those heady first few games at Old Trafford, to a place on the bench for much of the spring. When it mattered most Van Gaal turned to lesser players than Di Maria to drag the Reds through patchy form to fourth place in the Premier League. It is a damning indictment of a player who boasts all the tools to be a success at United.
There is no solitary cause of Di Maria’s failure though. Certainly, the player’s attitude comes under renewed scrutiny after he failed to join his team-mates in Santa Clara. The belief that Di Maria, somehow, rarely felt at one with United is catalysed when considering how rapidly the early energy of standout autumn displays dissipated into what appeared to many as indifference as the season wore on.
Much of the player’s change in attitude is laid at the door of a January break-in, where burglars used scaffolding and ladders to rob the Cheshire family home. With wife and daughter present during the break-in the Di Marias retrenched to the safety of a Manchester hotel. The family never returned home; the player’s performances could not recover either.
That form was aided little by a succession of minor injuries to thigh, hamstring and a variety of muscles, although the player missed just four games in total for United through injury alone. Another three passed the winger by after a bizarre FA Cup dismissal against Arsenal in March. It precipitated Di Maria’s exclusion from Van Gaal’s side; a player that could not be relied on, nor one who could be trusted.
Nor was Van Gaal’s perpetual insistence on changing the team’s shape helpful – or Di Maria’s role within it. In total the player featured in nine different positions across midfield and attack for United last season from just 32 appearances. Di Maria started the campaign as one of three in central midfield. It is the role many believe is the former Real Madrid player’s best. He shifted to a role in a diamond and also featured on both wings. For a time the player was deployed as an auxiliary forward ‘in the hole’ and, most oddly of all, as an outright striker in three matches during the spring.
Yet, this combination of factors – form, attitude, fitness and tactics – means that Di Maria completed just 16 games in total for United last season. It is scant reward for the riches paid to both player and former club.
Still, the failure will be glossed over at United. The club once described as “cynical” by Gary Neville has already moved on, with Barcelona winger Pedro Rodríguez the proposed £23 million replacement. The Spaniard will offer competition in wide areas to Ashley Young, Juan Mata, Memphis Depay, and – after a star turn against Barcelona on Saturday afternoon – Adnan Januzaj.
Pedro scored 45 goals between 2009 and 2011 for Barça from a wide left role, yet could not always find a place in Luis Enrique’s side last season. The 27-year-old was a regular substitute – and regularly substituted – to such an extent that he played the full 90 minutes on just 19 occasions from 50 appearances in all competitions.
Still, it is that relative lack of importance that is driving Pedro away from Barcelona – a club the player has been associated with for more than a decade. He will bring pace, goals – there have been at least 10 a season for the last six campaigns – and a genuine team ethic to United. Indeed, what Pedro lacks in technical brilliance compared to Di Maria might be compensated, in part at least, by a work-rate that is likely to please his new manager.
Meanwhile, over in Paris the welcoming party for Di Maria will begin once United has, with a little irony, faced his new club in Chicago on Thursday. The proposed £45 million fee will leave the Reds with a paper loss on the player in the region of £15 million, although much of that is attributable to forex movements over the past 12 months. The club will recoup €63 million of the €75 million paid to Madrid, with no bonuses due, and has amortised any loss in value over the past year.
PSG will be Di Maria’s fifth club in a decade as a professional. And it was left to another wandering maverick to roll out the Parisian red carpet.
“If you get a chance to play with Di María it is a fantastic thing,” said Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is now at his seventh European club.
“He is a fantastic player who plays for the team. He brings pace. He brings big quality and for sure he will make our team even better than it is today. We will receive him with open arms.”
So too will Blanc, who is charged with finding more from a player presumably less comfortable in Manchester than he will be in Paris. And if the Di Maria once past returns in the French capital then more questions will be asked – both of the player and his former manager.