Manchester United officially announced the signing of Angel di Maria amid the backdrop of a 4-0 insult at the hands of impudent league one side MK Dons. So abject was their display that if you were watching both teams for the first time you would struggle to believe United was the team purchasing the £60 million player. Yet they have, and in doing so may have indelibly changed the course of their season and the course of the career of di Maria. Or at least the course of the conversation for the next few weeks.
There has been a lot of debate about where di Maria will fit into Louis van Gaal’s system. It seems that the Dutch manager has decided that the 3-5-2 formation he used with the Netherlands at the World Cup – that more often than not turns into a 5-3-2 formation – is now the way forward for the Red Devils. If that is the case, it is hard to see where he would slot into the team, and easy to see why some people have greeted the purchase with slight skepticism. He is a good player they say, but bought in a position that is not United’s pressing need. Some would brand him a panic purchase by a desperate team, a cosmetic distraction from the real issue. Like a man grabbing his gun from his holster out of fear in a pitch black room. It’ll make you feel better about the situation, but ultimately it won’t solve the problem. Obviously that would be a line of thinking which would be possibly underestimating the player, but then playing beside the belle of the ball Cristiano at Real Madrid and the messianic Messi at Argentina will do that to you. All that dogged determination and frantic acceleration seen as background noise to football’s version of Ali vs Frazier.
However, as his price tag loudly proclaims, di Maria is not just any random player, and the necessity of the purchase wasn’t just about tactics. It was about making a statement and showing the world, the media, their fans, their opponents and indeed their corporate sponsors that, despite results on the pitch and a lack of Champions League football, the Manchester United name still had the power to attract a member of the elite. A truly world-class player, his presence will provide a sharp injection of pace into the heartbeat of United on and off the pitch, and could even serve as a magnet for other top level players. In a way they had to break the British transfer record, to try to show that United was still the same fabled team, like Real Madrid did in 2009 when they brought Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo to the Bernabéu. They have bought a player filled with ambition and self-belief, traits that used to be synonymous with the great United squads under Sir Alex Ferguson in the last two decades. He is determined, sometimes unpredictable, scarily quick and imaginative on the ball – all qualities that the new United have sorely lacked. He has also been standing in the shadow of two great heavyweights, and now is his chance to step into the light at Old Trafford, the commercial juggernaut that needs a hero.
Madrid meanwhile, have made an unquantifiable mistake. It is easy to underrate a player when he is playing beside Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, but di Maria was instrumental to that Champions League winning Real Madrid side of 2013/2014. His departure is a by-product of their insatiable desire for the new and shiny, a Galactico business model that they have stuck to for better or worse. His industry, flair, pace and work ethic will be missed. Initially at Real Madrid he was an enigma, sometimes brilliant, sometimes flattering to deceive, almost like Nani was for Manchester United. The last two years however, has seen a marked rise in di Maria’s stature. He was priceless for the Madridistas, initiating countless counter attacks from deep in his own territory, a key feature of Carlo Ancelotti’s swashbuckling side. He had 17 assists last season, the most by any player in Spain, England or Italy. Even Diego Simeone, manager of arch rivals Atletico Madrid, recently called di Maria “the best player they (Real Madrid) have”. A slight exaggeration considering the presence of the World Player of the Year, but still indicative of the esteem with which di Maria is now held. Madrid will hope that new arrivals James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos bed in quickly. Kroos in particular will aim to bring control and balance to a side that sometimes seemed overloaded with pacey forward players when Madrid had Bale, Ronaldo, di Maria and Benzema in full flight. Di Maria’s departure seems to have come from a falling out with the Madrid hierarchy, who – if his open letter in Marca is any indication – he feels ultimately forced him out of the club.
However, with his divorce from Madrid now concluded, di Maria, like a scorned lover, will have a point to prove. He is going to a team that is shorn of confidence. Tuesday’s loss to MK Dons, a team formulated as recently as 2004, is the latest nadir in a series of nadirs for the Red Devils. The fact that United fans all over the world were only mildly surprised as opposed to visibly shocked at the result is indicative of how far and how fast United are falling. Di Maria’s big money purchase is the latest in a long line of attempts to reanimate a zombie-like United. As a team they seem cautious at best, and at worst uninterested in the drudgery of everyday football. First they called on David Moyes and Marouane Fellaini, then the trickery of Juan Mata, then the nostalgia of Ryan Giggs and most recently the eccentricity of van Gaal. Now they have called out to di Maria from the recesses of the deep. He will help pull them up out of the abyss and propel his career to dizzying heights, or they will fall together into the unfortunate pile of past glories and might-have-beens. Either way, it’ll be fascinating to watch.