Manchester United broke the British transfer record this week when they paid Real Madrid £59.7 million for Angel di Maria. There’s no doubting the Argentina international’s pedigree, but how exactly does he fit into this United team?
Let’s start by clarifying something; much has been made of the transfer fee for di Maria, but if he can become as important to this Manchester United team as he was for Real Madrid, it is absolutely worth every penny.
Di Maria was a vital cog for Real’s Champions League winning team last season and while the show was often stolen by Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema, the Argentine was the engine that drove the squad.
Known as Fideo (translated: “Noodle”, because of his gangly appearance) to his teammates, he brings a relentless energy to a United team that’s been lacking a midfield threat for years.
Di Maria’s pace in attack and on the counter, coupled with his fantastic dribbling ability, is a deadly combination, especially with players in front of him, and is another thing the Red Devils could have used in their dismal start to the season.
Of course there’s no questioning the skills that he brings as an individual; it’s how he fits into Louis van Gaal’s 3-5-2 that has people questioning whether the move was the right one when United have so many obvious holes in their squad. The easy answer to how he fits is that, realistically, he can’t.
Di Maria is versatile enough to play a number of roles in that system (wingback, central midfield, second striker etc.) , but none of them truly fit his skill set and it’s at this point we may see Van Gaal opt to shift his formation.
The Argentine excelled on the left side of a central three in Real’s 4-3-3 with Ronaldo playing ahead of him. Van Gaal has preferred the 4-3-3 for much of his career but his desire to put Robin Van Persie, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney all on the pitch at once means it’s unlikely we’ll see it in the near future.
What seems far more likely is a shift to a 4-1-2-1-2, in what is essentially a 4-4-2 with a narrow diamond midfield.
Taking a look at the shape above we can see that it combines all the elements Van Gaal seems to prefer while deploying the players in their “best” positions.
The attacking trio remains in a triangle with Rooney, Van Persie and Mata in behind leading the attack.
Di Maria sits on the left side of the diamond in a similar role to his one at Real and an identical position to the one he played with Benfica. Ander Herrera occupies the same position on the right and not only does it suit his skill set quite neatly, it is also a position of strength for a number of United’s reserves.
Adnan Januzaj can play the position and use the space out wide while Shinji Kagawa (whether he is with United in a week’s time is yet to be seen) would be in the more central role he’s been dying to play ever since joining the club.
It suits di Maria and Herrera to a tee because it’s a high energy role that requires the players in defence but gives them attacking freedom and the space to work with.
In behind you would ideally have a combative, defensive midfielder but Michael Carrick (once fit) has proven adept there in the past.
Probably the biggest bonus outside of stacking the field with attacking talent is that it allows a flat back four, meaning United will only have two of their truly awful central defenders on the pitch at any one time. Meanwhile, because of the the narrow diamond, there is still space for the fullbacks to move into the attack.
This formation has everyone playing in a natural position and could go some distance to addressing the issues United have struggled with in the first few weeks of the season.
When you pay almost £60million for a player it’s essential you get the best out of them and di Maria is a player that’s worth having comfortable and on form.
Last season di Maria had the most assists in Europe with 17, but a far more important statistic is the amount of chances he created. With 91, he engineered more goal scoring opportunities than the combined efforts of Adnan Januzaj, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Nani; who only managed 84 between them.
Statistics don’t quite cover how good di Maria is. The man possesses a frankly incredible level of fitness and a work rate that will see him defending his own corner one second and leading an attack the next. He is also remarkably selfless on the football pitch, if someone is in a better position he releases the ball and this is what led to so many assists.
Getting di Maria to play at that level in Manchester is absolutely vital with United looking consistently lost in and around the opposition area for the best part of 12 months now.
The Red Devils have paid an enormous amount of money for an enormously talented player but it could prove a colossal waste of money if steps aren’t taken to ensure they get the best out of him.
Van Gaal, a notoriously slow starter, may yet stick to his guns and have di Maria squeeze into the 3-5-2 but given his form last year a change in philosophy could be the right move.
Things might not work out but, for a moment at least, United fans look to finally have a player worthy of the number 7 again.