With despondent acceptance Angel Di Maria glanced up at the substitutes board held aloft by the fourth official on the touchline and jogged over to be replaced. His Manchester United side had given themselves just over 10 minutes to salvage a result against Swansea City, but Louis Van Gaal decided the Argentine was incapable of delivering as much.
The substitution of Di Maria in such a scenario was illustrative of the struggles the Premier League’s most expensive player has endured since making the record £59.7 million move to United last summer. This was not a case of freak management from van Gaal. Di Maria deserved to be taken off.
By making such a change at such a time, van Gaal provided a damning indictment on Di Maria and his current form. The most expensive player in English football history – a Champions League winner and World Cup star – was deemed unsuitable to help his team rescue a result against Swansea City.
Upon his move to United Di Maria was regarded as the ideal signing for van Gaal – a coach who throughout his career has squeezed the best from speedy wide-men. Under David Moyes the Old Trafford club had struggled for energy and drive through midfield. Di Maria was the perfect antidote.
Indeed, by scoring three goals and contributing four assists in his first six games for United Di Maria looked to have found a team that played to his strengths just as much as Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid did. But since scoring in an October win over Everton the Argentine has found the net just once in 17 appearances – and that was against Yeovil Town.
Far from solving United’s midfield problem, Di Maria now finds himself complicit in it. Against Swansea Di Maria was played in his preferred position – on the left side of a midfield three – in what was a fully fit frontline for Man Utd. And yet the Argentine made little impression on the match, despite providing the assist for Ander Herrera’s opener.
Di Maria was hardly bought for his physical attributes – beyond his lightning pace – but he was too easily shrugged off the ball against Gary Monk’s men, largely failing to provide the drive and midfield dynamism his team desperately needed.
Over the course of his last nine appearances in all competitions, Di Maria has contributed just two assists, failing to score over that stretch. Van Gaal and United are entitled to expect better of their best and most expensive player.
It’s Tough At The Flop
Until recently there had been significant mitigating factors for Di Maria to cite as explanation for this poor form. Having changed teams, countries and cultures in the summer it was reasonable to expect it might take time for the 27-year-old to adapt to his new surroundings. But the Argentine – who is now playing in his optimum position in an almost fully fit team nearly six months after he signed – has run dry of excuses. Thus far the most expensive player in Premier League history has been a flop.
Of course, van Gaal must also shoulder a significant share of the blame for Di Maria’s dismal form. The Dutchman has chopped and changed his team so often that United have toiled for rhythm in recent weeks, and Di Maria is a player who thrives more than most on momentum.
“Di Maria has to adapt to the English rhythm of the game,” van Gaal insisted after a particularly dismal display from the Argentine earlier this month. “That’s a high standard and the big difference with other countries. He shall do that. I’m convinced of it.”
Great players raise the performances of those around them. With such stature and price tag came that responsibility for Di Maria, but the Argentine has instead been dragged down by the inferiority of his new teammates at United.
£59.7 million is a hefty enough price tag to weigh down any player, and Di Maria isn’t the first to suffer under with the burden of expectation in the North-West of England. In fact, three of United’s most expensive ever signings – Juan Mata, Dimitar Berbatov and Juan Sebastian Veron – never matched the standard set by their transfer fees.
Van Gaal has already cut Radamel Falcao – another expensive gamble – from his starting lineup having failed to live up to his billing as one of the best players in Europe. Di Maria could be next to suffer the indignity of Man Utd’s bench, and more than just for the last 10 minutes.