In Angel Di Maria, Manchester United have made a real coup by getting one of the top 10 players in the world at the moment and arguably La Liga’s best player last season. Over the first four official games of his tenure, Louis van Gaal has started off with a similar formation to the one he used predominantly with the Netherlands during the World Cup: five at the back with two strikers upfront, a template that has been used to accommodate Juan Mata behind Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, despite a shaky defence and a brittle midfield.
Van Gaal now has the option of switching to a four man defence with the versatile Argentine operating as the left-sided midfielder in a three man midfield as well as being deployed out wide as a winger on either flank.
What Di Maria brings to United
Di Maria has been a Carrilero (shuttler) for most of his time in Europe. He attracted interest from Real Madrid after impressing in this role during his time at Benfica and has also played in midfield for his national side. A Carrilero is neither a proper central midfielder not a wide midfielder. Rather they operate close to the striker, either creating chances for them or bombing forward when the striker holds up the play. They need to have bags of stamina because of the constant runs up and down the pitch, and Di Maria is a perfect example of this. He creates overloads in the wide areas of the pitch, helping out the full-backs both offensively and defensively. Also he is very effective in closing down the opposition midfielders with his energetic running and never ending stamina.
Fitting into Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 formation alongside Ander Herrera will be a risk because of the lack of an imposing figure in midfield, but Di Maria will be efficient wherever he plays because he can turn defence into attack with his ability to carry the ball out from deeper positions and offers penetration while beating opposition players with his burst of pace in the process.
After a match in which Tom Cleverley and Adnan Januzaj ended up in the midfield against Sunderland, Van Gaal was quoted as saying, “We have four midfield injuries; we need creative passing. I thought he (Januzaj) could provide it. We were dominating without creating chances and there were so many chances we didn’t create.”
With his immense drive and excellent creativity, Di Maria is surely one of the pieces of the jig-saw that the Dutchman is trying to complete at Old Trafford and he will be relished by the likes of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney alongside Juan Mata, as well as profiting from their ability to drop deep and thread through balls for the onrushing winger.
During pre-season, Van Gaal bemoaned the fact that United had five No.9s and four No.10s but lacked wingers to give them attacking width despite having the likes of Valencia and Young. Clearly he wanted an upgrade and in Di Maria, he has brought in one of the elite footballers in the world. With his trickery and outstanding skills, he can skin defenders at will and produce crosses of the highest quality. He was played predominantly on the right under the reign of Jose Mourinho and excelled in the counter-attacking style of play where he undoubtedly benefited from playing with the Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Mesut Ozil.
Previous season comparison
Di Maria was one of the best players for Real Madrid last season before going on to become an integral part of his country’s run to the World Cup Final. With the arrival of Gareth Bale to take up his position on the right wing last summer, Di Maria’s days at the Bernabéu looked numbered. But he re-invented himself as a midfielder and it was from that role that he achieved the highest point of his career yet- a man of the match performance in the Champions League final win over Atletico Madrid.
Comparing his stats from last season, he is well ahead of any other United player in terms of key passes (2.77 per game), chances created (3.42 per game) and assists (0.65 per game).
Indeed he comfortably led the assists in Europe’s top five leagues with his 17 in La Liga compared to the combined total of four by Young, Valencia and Nani in the whole of last season. And since the start of the 2010/11 season, only Lionel Messi (57) has provided more assists than Di Maria (49) in La Liga.
He had a decent shot accuracy of 59%, although he managed to score just four goals from a deeper midfield position despite having an average of 2.39 shots per game, second only to Januzaj in this list. Beating players almost half the number of times, he also possesses brilliant dribbling skills. It won’t be surprising that he gets more goals than last season when he was dwarfed by the likes of Ronaldo and Bale. The 26-year-old finished with 11 goals and 22 assists from 52 appearances in all competitions.
“I have bought him because he can play inside and on the wing, and that is handy for a coach,” Van Gaal said on Tuesday
Di Maria will be used, at least initially, as a left-sided midfielder until the time Van Gaal sticks with his favoured 3 central defenders and two wing-backs. A lot depends on whether United are able to cut down on their defensive lapses in the new system and more importantly whether the players are able to adjust to the rigours and style of the new system. It will undoubtedly take some time and the squad as a whole needs a tough battling midfielder despite the signing of Di Maria.
3-5-2/ 3-4-1-2/ 5-2-1-2
In the 3-5-2, Di Maria will be wasted as a wing-back because he would be required to curb his natural instincts to charge forward and join in the attack and instead be responsible for defending the left side by himself. Moreover despite his endless energy and desire to win the ball back, his sleight frame would be exploited by stronger, more physical opponents and the Argentine would be no use pegged back inside his own area. United have a £30 million teenager waiting to occupy that role anyway.
Therefore Di Maria would be best suited to the role of the shuttler, who will cover every blade of grass in the 90 minutes helping out defensively, while constantly looking to link up with the left wing-back as well the strikers. His partner would be either one Fletcher or Herrera, till Carrick comes back, or if United get in another midfielder.
This is the role Di Maria played in when he was in Benfica. “Di Maria and Ramires play from inside to out,” Michael Cox of Zonal Marking noted in 2010, “and are comfortable scrapping in midfield as well as getting to the byline and getting crosses in.”
With more bodies in the midfield alongside him, and all three of Mata, Van Persie and Rooney in their favoured positions, this looks to be on paper at least the most obvious choice of formation Van Gaal would switch to in order to accommodate all four of his star players. Di Maria would have the license to roam forward without being charged with the responsibly to track back than in the previous formation, and it might prove to be the position in which he prospers at Old Trafford.
The least likely formation in which Di Maria might be deployed is out on the right. Rooney as a result would have to play as an inside forward on the left wing, with Mata playing in the hole. The Argentine played in a much more reserved role in this position under Mourinho and from the right side he could cut in, linking up with Van Persie and the marauding right-back, which has been a feature of United’s style of play over the years.
Angel Di Maria is a great signing that will lift the dour performances that United have been displaying of late. He has the potential to fire them to the top four, but United still need another midfielder and if they manage to sign Vidal after this, that will be a more important signing than Di Maria. The Argentine though has everything in his locker to light up the league and drag United forward on his own.