Untangling What Looks Like an Inevitable Di Maria Divorce
Angel Di Maria’s time at Manchester United looks increasingly near its end. The outcome of his proposed move to PSG, who United will play in Chicago on Thursday, is “close”, according to manager Laurent Blanc.
For the British record signing to spend just one season at the club before slinking off for an easier life in France is quite frankly circus stuff. It reflects badly on all parties involved; no-one comes out of this with any credit.
We spent just shy of £60m to bring Di Maria to Manchester, and when his signing was announced, few of us could have expected that he might finish his Man Utd career after a single, entirely forgettable campaign.
But was this in fact a transfer that was doomed to fail from the start? Sure, the much-discussed burglary can’t have helped, and Van Gaal’s relentless experimentation in pursuit of some as yet not-quite-realised tactical utopia can’t have done Di Maria any favours.
Beyond the suggestions of PTSD that legitimately accompany an aggravated burglary and the existentially-crippling positional uncertainty inflicted by a manager moulding United into something new, though, were there deeper reasons this whole thing might never have worked?
Van Gaal is known for demanding that players trust his system and adapt to the LVG way. As Robin Van Persie offered in September, before being unceremoniously offloaded this month, “We have nothing else to do than execute what’s in his mind.” Yet, by May, Di Maria unquestionably failed in this respect. The manager’s assessment was characteristically blunt:
“Players have to adapt to the team philosophy and Di Maria has to do that.
“Can Di Maria learn? That we have to wait and see. It is not because he doesn’t have the quality. He has to perform in a way that we want.”
No assertion of confidence from Van Gaal that it’s only a matter of time until Di Maria wraps his head around the boss’ way of doing things. Just a withering admission that the club’s most expensive ever player hasn’t found his place in the Dutchman’s partially reengineered Man Utd machine.
This is a stark contrast to the situation at Real Madrid. In a team of Galacticos, it seemed he might be marginalised, but his performances convinced Carlo Ancelotti he had to play. As Nick Miller wrote in The Guardian ahead of the 2014 World Cup: “He basically became undroppable, so Carlo Ancelotti almost created a position for him. In that respect Di María perhaps has the ideal manager, the Italian being one of football’s great conciliatory characters.”
A conciliatory character Van Gaal is not. His massive ego and ability to set and stick to the agenda have not come as a surprise – we knew that’s what we were getting with LVG, and in hindsight it’s easy to see how this change in management style might have been detrimental to Di Maria’s confidence.
That was just one element of a comprehensive culture-shock for the Argentine. His countrymen don’t have a great history at United, but that’s straying towards superstition. What is clear is that he moved from a team where the majority of the attention was monopolised by the superstars around him, to a team bereft of big names and world class talent. And he made that move at a record, headline-inciting cost. He was instantly the focus for fans and the British press. This was the same player described by Quique Sanchez Flores – Di Maria’s former boss at Benfica – as “shy and very reserved,” a player who “does not like the publicity” but “just likes to express himself on the pitch.” Did he ever stand a chance if he’s really so uncomfortable in the full, searing glare that comes with being the £60m marquee megastar at the biggest club in the world?
It really does seem to come down to personality, and Di Maria seems in many ways to lack the mental strength and work ethic that any United player should possess, whether managed by Van Gaal or anyone else. I fully agree with Samuel Luckhurst, who wrote earlier today that “his durability is so brittle he does not have the stomach to oust Ashley Young from the United side and the willingness to play in a league as unremarkable and unchallenging as Ligue 1 highlights Di Maria’s frailty and cowardice.”
The fact that Di Maria failed to board his scheduled flight to the States certainly seems like the final straw, implying not just spinelessness, but a level of disrespect for the club that I personally see no reason to forgive. His departure isn’t confirmed; he may yet still stay, and others may argue that if he helps us win the title next season, there’ll be no hard feelings, but for me, it seems Man Utd simply isn’t where he belongs.
Also, that stupid celebration. That incessant heart-hands bollocks. Get yourself to Paris mate.