After a summer of optimism at Old Trafford following the arrival of some big names, Manchester United fans were hoping to put last season’s disappointment behind them, and surge into a top four finish. There was no bigger signing than that of Angel Di Maria, who arrived at the club for a British record fee; just shy of £60million.
Many were surprised at the decision of Real Madrid to let one of their star players leave the Bernabeu, especially after a man-of-the-match performance in their Champions League Final success over city rivals Atletico Madrid. Despite the hefty price tag, it appeared United had secured one of the world’s finest talents in Di Maria, and in doing so had signalled their intent to get back on track, and begin to compete as we know they can.
But the campaign has not gone to plan for the Argentine, who looks a shadow of the player we know he can be, with some poor performances drawing criticism from both fans and pundits. Their disappointing exit in the FA Cup at the hands of Arsenal on Monday night saw the Red Devils throw away their best chance at winning the competition in recent years, and last opportunity for silverware this campaign.
Not only was the defeat worsened by the fact that former United man Danny Welbeck struck the winning goal, but a bad night was compounded when Di Maria was needlessly sent off for two yellow cards just moments apart. After a silly booking for diving, the midfielder gave referee Michael Oliver little choice in brandishing a second yellow, as Di Maria pulled him back to protest his innocence at the previous decision.
Di Maria’s expression as he left the pitch summed up his time at the club, which despite some flashes of brilliance, has ultimately proved disappointing thus far. His assist for Wayne Rooney’s equaliser was superb; a great cross with plenty of pace and whip, that showed just how dangerous his left foot can be. But moments of quality like this, have not been regular enough for a player of his class and price tag.
So how can United solve this problem, and get the best out of their record signing over the coming weeks and months?
Much of the problem, like many of the United players, appears to be due to a lack of confidence, and this has to be down to the manager. The Dutchman has continuously altered his team in terms of personnel, formation and philosophy, something that is certainly not helping the likes of Di Maria. The Argentine has failed to be given a constant run in the in his preferred position at the heart of a three man midfield, where he can utilise his pace, trickery and creative ability as he did so in the European final.
Van Gaal continues to tinker with his team, clearly still in search of his best system, and by doing so is not helping Di Maria develop as a United player in the role he wants to fulfil, with him often ending up out on the wing, where he has struggled to make a sufficient impact.
A long campaign last season, which culminated in a World Cup Final, could be taking its toll on him, and he does appear to be lacking fitness in certain areas, looking less sharp as he did not so long ago. His lack of strength has been found out since his arrival to the league, with opponents able to muscle him off the ball with ease on numerous occasions.
The need for a few weeks’ rest, and a good pre-season under his belt could prove important in answer to the question, and United will be hopeful this can bring an improvement in performances come the start of next season, where they hope to be fighting it out in the Champions League once again. A regular starting berth in the centre of the United team would also hugely benefit his confidence, allowing them to get the best out of his creative and attacking ability, which as a team as a whole, has been distinctly average this season.
It’s certainly too early to be labelling Di Maria as a flop, a waste of money or a poor signing, but it can’t be argued that he has underperformed so far. Failure to finish in the top four this season is unthinkable for the club, but the ability to secure a return to Europe’s premier competition would be made a great deal easier, could they get the best out of their star man.
For Di Maria and van Gaal, there’s still plenty of work to be done.