Young vs Di Maria: Are we in a Parallel Universe?

Young vs Di Maria: Are we in a Parallel Universe?

On 24th April, 2014, two players, at a distance of a little more than a thousand miles apart, would’ve both had a hard time sleeping.

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One was an Argentine in Lisbon, capping off a remarkable season with another virtuoso, man-of-the-match winning performance in the UEFA Champions League final. Finally returning to the hotel room in the wee morning hours with adrenalin still pumping in his veins, it is unlikely Angel Di Maria caught any sleep that night.

The other was an Englishman in Manchester, likely mulling over a career that had plummeted spectacularly. With only 12 league starts all season, and a total of 92 minutes in the last 5 games, it is unlikely Ashley Young would’ve slept most nights that English summer, exchanging nervous texts with Tom Cleverley and Rio Ferdinand instead. He knew the new manager was on his way. He knew the new gaffer would surely glance through the numbers as he planned an inevitable summer clear-out. And he knew 2 goals & 1 assist are numbers that would attract attention for all the wrong reasons.

Fast-forward to nearly a year later, 12th April, 2015. As Big Ben hit 4, and the referee blew his whistle, the two men found themselves barely 50 metres apart, donning the same colours. One was on the pitch, trusted by his manager to deliver on one of the most important matchdays on the Man Utd calendar year. The other graced the bench, deemed unworthy of 90 minutes in a pivotal clash for the top 4. Only one of them would’ve wanted to turn back the clock.

Indeed if you had slipped into a Rip Van Winkle-esque sleep on the night on 24th April, 2014 and woken up on the evening of 12th April, 2015 to the Man Utd-Man City game, you couldn’t have been faulted for thinking you had switched to a parallel universe. For it is a testament to the glorious (or inglorious if you’re Di Maria) uncertainties of the beautiful game that it was Ashley Young on the pitch for the kick-off against Man City, while Angel Di Maria could only look wistfully on from the sidelines.

And it wasn’t even a one-off selection but rather a continuation from the Tottenham, Liverpool and Villa games. It is ironic that of all people Ashley Young has benefitted most from Di Maria’s ill-advised dive (and subsequent tugging at the ref). For such has been the new found fluency and verve of this semi-accidentally assembled XI since the Tottenham game, that Van Gaal seems hesitant to remove a single card from this excruciatingly constructed house. And who can blame him?

One would have to go back deep even into Sir Alex’s reign to find a period where United put in such consistently dominating back-to-back performances against their top rivals. And Young hasn’t been just a chance spectator but rather a central figure to this renaissance. United fans and Di Maria himself couldn’t have been faulted for thinking that it was only a matter of time before Young’s purple path ended and his obvious superiority was called upon. Instead, both have been left waiting and waiting. In fact such was the quality of Young’s man-of-the-match winning display that it was eventually Mata who had to be hauled off from the other wing to give Di Maria his obligatory few minutes.

Which leaves us facing a question that would have left many fans in splits on that April night in Lisbon, but is a stark reality today: Ashley Young or Angel Di Maria- Who is a better fit at United? Which is the player United need? I stress a better fit and not a better player, because that would depend on your definition of “better”. Is a better player the one who can waltz past his opponent in the blink of an eye, or the one who can diligently maintain his concentration and cover the angles against the opposing full-back? Is he the one who can run a show all by himself, or the one who can increase the cohesion of the team through his chemistry with the players around him?

The following analysis aims to firstly understand the current strengths and weaknesses of both the players, based on this season’s league performances, while also studying their progress based on the stats from the previous season. It then seeks to align them with the needs of the team and manager to answer our question of the better fit.

Attacking Contribution

For all the constant talk of the astonishing drop in Di Maria’s form, he far outscores Young in direct attacking contributions. Even after his haul of a goal and 2 assists against City last Sunday, Young has just 2 goals, 3 assists and 23 chances created in 1578 minutes of play, to Di Maria’s 3 goals, 10 assists and made 47 key passes in 1542 minutes of play (36 minutes lesser). And while the numbers are counter-intuitive to one’s perception of the form of both players, the gulf itself isn’t surprising.

With all due respect to Young, even on his worst days Di Maria can produce moments of footballing magic that Young can only applaud at from a distance. He is the more explosive player by far, with the ability to turn the game on its head with moves such as glimpsed in his sumptuous finish against Leicester City earlier in the season. He has 34 goals and 72 assists since the 2010/11 season as against 23 goals and 31 assists for Young in the same period.

However, for consistent, sustained attacking contribution, we’ll have to look at deeper numbers.

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Young vs Di Maria: Attacking contribution comparison across last two seasons

Di Maria is easily the one more involved in the general build-up play of United attacks when he’s on the field. He attempts nearly 30% more passes every 90 minutes than Young, while also enforcing the play with mostly forward passes (as against Young who makes most of his backward). Di Maria also completes more than 1.5 times the take-ons of Young, albeit at an expected lower rate of success. He also attempts nearly thrice as many shots on goals every 90 minutes, with a predictably lower shot accuracy.

This is inspite of a marginal drop all round for Di Maria from last season, with the most significant fall being in forward passes, and successful take-ons in absolute and percentage terms, something he seems to be looking to make up for with excessive shooting. Young, on the other hand, has improved immensely in successful take-ons in absolute and percentage terms, a direct reflection of his improved confidence. He has, however, moved to a safer game on the side of reduced forward passes and shots, improving his percentages.

The numbers speak for themselves in showing how Di Maria is the greater attacking threat, both directly and in build-up, even in a relatively below-par season. Acting as enforcer in United attacks, he offers a direct approach in running at opponents, making the more adventurous passes and spraying the odd shot at goal. It does, however, come at the cost of a lesser percentage element to United’s attacks.

Young on the other hand offers decently healthy attacking numbers. While he is running at opposing full-backs better now, with the exception of a rare game such as the Man City one, he has generally handled the mantle of attack to other players this season, while playing a higher percentage game himself. His numbers are also partly deflated due to his commitment and contributions in the other half of the pitch, whether during his brief stints at full-back or even when playing further up at wing-back or left-wing.

Defensive Contribution

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Young vs Di Maria: Defensive contribution comparison across last two seasons

If Di Maria won the attacking side easily, Young’s numbers make the defensive side a no-contest. More than double the interceptions, nearly triple the blocks, 8 times the clearances, twice the number of tackles won, and averaging at least 0.68 aerial duels won every game against Di Maria who is yet to win one (both stand at exactly the same height of 180 cm). Of course, just as stints at full-back and wing-back deflated his attacking numbers, so too they inflate Young’s defensive stats here. However, his defensive contribution hasn’t diminished even when playing on the wing. Even in the previous game against City when he thrived in attack with a goal and two assists, he still made 2 interceptions, 1 clearance and 1 successful tackle, in line with his season stats. The defensive side of his game is something that Young seems to have worked hard upon from last season. Apart from aerial duels, he has improved dramatically from last season across nearly all defensive attributes.

As for Di Maria, his defensive numbers are quite woeful. While it could of course be put down to particular instructions from the manager, the extent of the gulf does seem to indicate a huge difference between the two in both defensive ability and willingness. The attacking thrust clearly comes at a cost, but this season the cost seems to be a bit higher. While his defensive numbers are pretty much similar from last season, he seems much more hesitant to put in tackles this season, with both tackles attempted and successful tackles being cut to lesser than half.

All in all, Young offers an enormous amount more in the defensive department, an area he’s been decent at previously and improved upon even more this season. Di Maria on the other hand has always compromised on his defensive side to be able to deliver more on the attacking side. However, this season the compromises have gone up further.

Holding Possession

United have had the second highest possession in the league, and the sixth best across Europe’s top five leagues. Incidentally, last Saturday they had 55% possession against the side with the best possession stats in the league. Any discussion of a Van Gaal player is therefore incomplete without talking about his possession stats. It is to be expected, however, that for one who plays a high-impact, high-risk game, Di Maria’s stats would suffer here in comparison to Young. And the numbers tell a similar tale.

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Young vs Di Maria: Holding Possession comparison across last two seasons

Di Maria surprisingly doesn’t have too much of an inferior pass completion success, considering he makes most of his passes forward and Young makes more backward. This speaks of a player who is not irresponsible in possession even if he is more adventurous. In fact, last season he had an 82.1% pass success in the league. The lower shot accuracy and successful take-on success is a direct result of a much higher number of attempts per 90 mins as mentioned earlier. Young’s numbers, keeping in line with his high-percentage game, are superior in terms of purely holding on to possession, and have remained pretty much constant from last year. He has a pass completion of 80% this season as against 80.7% in the league and 79.2% in the Champions League last season.

To add to these, Young has an average of 1.1 unsuccessful touches and 0.5 dispossessions per 90 mins, while Di Maria has 1.7 unsuccessful touches and 1.7 dispossessions per 90 mins. These are more worrying numbers. However, these are not numbers uncharacteristic to Di Maria speaking of bad form. In his last stellar season at Madrid, he averaged 1.4 unsuccessful touches and 1.8 dispossessions per 90 mins in the Champions League, though in the league he did have 1.5 unsuccessful touches but only 1 dispossession per 90 mins. As mentioned earlier, he does provide exceptional attacking impetus, but it does come at a cost.

To sum up the entire analysis on Di Maria and Young, Di Maria provides by far the better attacking contribution, though it has fallen from last season and Young’s marginally improved. However Young provides a hugely superior defensive side, which has further improved this season, while Di Maria’s has remained more or less constant apart from his tackling. Young is better at holding on to possession, and has adopted an even safer version of his game this season, and while Di Maria’s high-risk game has remained similar, his control seems to be letting him down more often this season.

This leads us to the final discussion regarding who is a better fit in Van Gaal’s side. There is no doubt that the current team is doing really well with a new-found cohesion and verve which, together with Young’s own remarkably improved performances, is instrumental in Van Gaal sticking to Young. However, his City performance has to be taken in context as an exception attacking-wise as it’s a huge outlier. Assuming the unlikely event of him regularly replicating that kind of performance, he will always deliver lesser on the attacking front than Di Maria.

Di Maria has lost his attacking edge, but only partially (he still has the second highest assists in the league). However, the main drawback keeping him out right now is his major defensive inferiority to Young, as well as repeatedly giving away possession while producing those superior attacking performances. There is a very important point to note here that with Shaw has been out for all these recent games where Young has been played ahead of Di Maria. And United are playing instead with Daley Blind at left-back who has very poor recovery powers when beaten or on the counter attack. This makes playing Di Maria a much greater liability with both his weaker defensive support as well as tendency to lose the ball more often. Otherwise, even when Young has been playing consistently well (admittedly not this well), Van Gaal hasn’t hesitated to give Di Maria a free rein. He hasn’t been hesitant to give Di Maria that extra leeway and freedom in his otherwise highly disciplined philosophy, as he provides variety and a different, unpredictable dimension in attack.

Personally, I am still of the opinion that while Young has been doing consistently well, he can only help taken United to a certain level, and is useful cover when other parts of the side are unsure. However, if United are to compete for titles next season both in England and Europe, an in-form Di Maria is the key to taking them to the next level of performance. And to hopefully get him back up to that form, Van Gaal will have to give Di Maria playing time.

For that, beyond recovering that extra attacking edge, it is vital that Di Maria improves on his possession and defensive sides at least up to his Madrid levels. But beyond that, with a summer to rest and a solid pre-season to boot this time around, and with better defensive cover behind him, Di Maria is still the better option for United next season, and we should expect him to get more playing time as well once Shaw is match-fit again and the Chelsea game is done. Young will stay on as a more than decent second option with United competing on multiple fronts next season.

There is no doubt that parallel universes have seemingly converged between the two April’s, but yet not all that much. Young has become no Di Maria and Di Maria has become no Young, rather they’ve both gotten closer to the middle. And though the question has gone from downright ridiculous to a more legitimate one, the answer to the question remains the Argentine lying awake in Lisbon. While Young is unlikely to be spending any more sleepless nights over his United future for a while now, United fans will be hoping that Di Maria will be having another adrenalin-fuelled, sleepless, triumphant Champions League final night, only this time in Manchester red.