Constantly jostled between central midfield, left wing and most recently – and most bizarrely – centre-forward by Louis van Gaal this season, we’ve seen a disturbing dip in form from Manchester United’s record signing Angel Di Maria during the winter period – topped by a rather uneventful display against Cambridge United in the FA Cup last weekend.
Indeed, he’d previously performed intrinsic roles in Premier League wins over Arsenal, Southampton and Liverpool, but the Argentine is now goalless in his last eight league outings, amassing just two assists.
Clearly in need of some regularity, we pose the question; which position actually best suits this struggling Red Devils star?
It’s a role that’s left many-a-Manchester-United-fan bemused in recent weeks, amid Di Maria’s run of no goals and one assist in three appearances as Robin van Persie’s unorthodox strike-partner, but the Netherlands’ system at the World Cup gives some insight into Louis van Gaal’s thinking.
As Oranje reached third-place with their surprise 3-5-2 formation, Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben was one of the players to make a real difference in a rather unique counter-attacking role alongside Manchester United’s top goalscorer, given licence to anticipate space around RVP before exploiting it on the break with his prolific pace and firepower.
Now 31 years of age and naturally declining in mobility, Van Persie requires that kind of support more than ever – someone who can do the leg work, and particularly stretch defences, for him. Similarly, United, overall, have lacked penetration in the final third this season.
As footballers, Di Maria and Robben are hardly chasms apart; both are famed for their tendencies to cut inside when playing on the right, both like to take on opposing defenders with the ball and both possess great technical ability underpinned by sensational speed.
The subtle difference however is that whilst the Netherlands international has moulded himself into one of Europe’s most potent wide players since moving to the Allianz Arena, often operating as part of the attack by playing off the shoulder of his opposing full-back, the Argentine is more of a creative force who utilises his pace best when running with the ball, rather than into space.
Likewise, playing with your back to goal is a completely different game, one that the 26 year-old’s recent performances suggest he’s not well acquainted with. Although Di Maria possesses some of the natural requisites for a front-line role, it’s wasteful of his more obvious talents and seems like a long-term project that just isn’t worth the hassle.
The position most natural to Di Maria by quite some distance, having played it for the majority of his career, utilisation out wide best exploits the Argentina international’s blend of trickery, pace and consistent end product.
This season, the 26 year-old has averaged an impressive 1.8 accurate crosses per match – the joint-third best return in the Premier League, only trumped by Southampton’s Dusan Tadic and West Ham’s Stewart Downing – and in total he’s notched up two assists from five league outings in wide positions for the Red Devils.
Currently however, United lack the aerially imperious brand of player who can take advantage of the South American’s deadly deliveries; barring 6 foot 4 midfield monolith Marouane Fellaini, who has to remain selective regarding opportunities to venture forward.
Likewise, Louis van Gaal has utilised out-and-out wingers just three times this season, instead preferring a midfield diamond or a 3-5-2, and in truth, the Red Devils are absent of a wide player who can balance out Di Maria on the other side. Antonio Valencia has more commonly been fielded at right-back, Adnan Januzaj is yet to rekindle his magical form from last term and Juan Mata has only proved himself too slow to impact from the flanks since moving to Old Trafford twelve months ago.
Perhaps in the long-term this will become Di Maria’s habitual position for United, should they sign another winger in this summer. But right now, fielding a functional and effective starting Xi with Di Maria as a winger, using players currently in van Gaal’s favour, seems to be a borderline impossibility.
Lacking the robust physicality of your average Premier League centre-mid, one can certainly understand the hesitation towards putting Di Maria in United’s engine room; a flat two or a triplet involving Wayne Rooney could well prove disastrous through its lack of defensive balance. Juan Mata, for example, really struggled to adapt to the discipline of deeper roles earlier in the campaign and Di Maria isn’t a player you’d immediately associate with the visionary attributes of a chess-like playmaker, anticipating passes and space in advance.
Yet, in my opinion, central midfield is the role that’s defined the Argentine’s career thus far, or at the very least, the role convinced Manchester United to pay a record-breaking £59million for his services during the summer.
Indeed, Di Maria became a player reborn as an unorthodox centre-mid at Real Madrid last season, catalysing Los Blancos to their first European title in a decade and leaving the Champions League final with the Man of the Match award.
As the most progressive element in a midfield trio of himself, Luka Modric and Sami Khedira, Di Maria created an incredible 109 scoring opportunities in La Liga and Europe combined last season, resulting in an equally miraculous 17 assists in the Spanish top flight.
Despite the United midfielder’s lightweight frame, he attacked the role with energy and dynamism, becoming the pivotal link between midfield and attack, and turned his ill-fitting attributes into uniquely positive idiosyncrasies – particularly his agile mobility, dribbling ability and eye for reverse passes around the penalty box. Had it not been for some typically Madridian post-World Cup politics, Carlo Ancelotti would likely have kept Di Maria at the Bernabeu for at least another season.
Rather tellingly, it’s also the position that’s served him best in the Premier League thus far, finding three goals and three assists in just five league outings as a Red Devils centre-mid. Even when utilised in alternative capacities, he’s continued to create, on average, 2.3 chances per match, demonstrating the Argentine’s playmaking qualities once again.
Be it in as an unconventional box-to-box or in a more advanced role, in my opinion, Manchester United will only maximise Di Maria’s talents when deploying him centrally. It’s the position that’s produced the best form of his career to date, not to mention the most output, and the Red Devils currently lack a stand-out star in the middle of the park. The Argentina international could fill an enormous hole that’s existed since the retirement of Paul Scholes in 2013.
The poise of the engine room and the starting Xi needs to perfect however, so until United improve defensively , it’s unlikely we’ll see Di Maria feature regularly in central midfield.