Many are debating the worth and merit of this transfer, but first things first, we need to acknowledge that this signing is the first of its kind for Manchester United in longer then I can remember. Manchester United have finally signed someone who is an out and out world class player, in his peak years, from another of the world’s best sides. United haven’t done this in over 10 years, with the last player who falls into all those categories being Juan Sebastian Veron of Lazio. United fans everywhere now will be looking at that name and thinking ‘we’ve signed better players since then!’ and whilst that’s true that Ronaldo, Ferdinand, Van Persie, Rooney, Tevez and Vidic all turned out better then Veron the majority of these players were project players. They were bought young and developed into the world’s finest, rather than being bought when they were already there, plying their trade at the highest level. Some might argue that Van Persie fits that mould; but he was only a Premier League star and had only been for one season; he had yet to blow the competition away on a grand stage, like the Champions League.
So this transfer deserves recognition on that front, Woodward claimed that United would “move in the market this summer in a way we haven’t seen in recent years.” and that has finally come to fruition. If nothing else, this transfer has shown that United are willing to compete in the same market as the world’s richest and most prestigious clubs; Real, Chelsea, Man City, Barca and Bayern. Questions still remain about whether or not they are able to compete on the same par as these clubs without Champions League football and as a club in decline, but if Van Gaal wants to arrest that decline then signings of this calibre will be essential.
The Player United Deserves/The Player United Needs?
Whilst I’ve paraphrased that quote from one about Batman I can’t help but feel it’s the most appropriate for this transfer. United fans have been begging, longing for years for the club to sign a genuine world star. This season in this window those calls grew louder as fans realised the sheer scale of the task ahead of them, for United to gain a footing among Europe’s elite once more. Those calls were answered by Van Gaal and Woodward, in the shape of Angel Di Maria, a 26 year old Argentine winger playing for Real Madrid. United fans everywhere looked at this and rejoiced; here was a player who had just last season won the Champions League, reached a World Cup final and had been playing at this level for over 4 years. On the face of it he is every inch the world class winger they need. However, delving a little deeper, we see that this signing is not as simple as many have made out. There are numerous issues with the Di Maria transfer, all of which could foreshadow the biggest flop in United’s history or, more optimistically, the key to unlocking the new era of United success.
A lot of players have passed through the ranks and worn the shirt since that fateful day on the 1st of July 2009, when Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United. A deep hole was left in the United team, one that has yet to be filled. The way has been cleared for Angel Di Maria to inherit the hallowed No. 7 shirt, with Valencia vacating it. One thing that has been missing from United, most notably in the last season, is pace and penetration. United have been forced to try and pass their way through the opposition team, or into playing endless crosses into the box in the hope one will connect. This lack of pace has contributed to their demise, in the Premier League, a league of high pressing, fast paced physical play, having a player who can sit on the shoulder of the attacker or make runs from the midfield is invaluable. The best teams have those runners and the creative players to create the space and find them. United have the creative players, in Mata, Carrick, Kagawa and Rooney but they’ve lacked anyone making those penetrating runs beyond the defence to connect with. For United Di Maria can provide that and more as has been his raison d’être.
Whilst there are many positions United could have been said to have needed more this has been the kind of player they have deserved since Ronaldo left for Madrid.
The statistics of Angel Di Maria since his move to Real Madrid tell a completely different story all on their own. Angel Di Maria has had 4 years at Real Madrid and during that time he’s been a World Cup runner-up, a UEFA Champions League winner, a La Liga winner, a UEFA Super Cup champion and 2 time Copa Del Rey winner. Straight away this seems like a born winner, someone who has reached the greatest of heights with arguably the world’s greatest club, however when we take a deeper look into his statistics we begin to see a worrying trend, that he is himself not the star man, more akin to the supporting act.
First we shall evaluate his most recent season, the 2013/14 Real Madrid campaign and Summer World Cup in Brazil. Di Maria featured in 34 of Real’s 38 game league season, starting 27 of those games. In that season he scored 4 goals and was the assist leader with 17. He had a 56% shot accuracy, hitting the target 34 out of 63 times, but a strike rate of just 11% of shots on target, falling to 6% when including all shots. This translates into roughly a goal every 8.5 games in the league but an outstanding assist ratio of a goal every other game. Di Maria was instrumental in Real’s Champions League campaign, scoring 3 goals and assisting 6 in 11 appearances with just 2 from the bench. He also scored 4 goals in Real’s successful Copa Del Rey campaign. His success at the World Cup was only moderate, as although his team went onto the finals he failed to shine as both an individual or as a cog in the team. He only scored 1 goal and provided no assists, his pass accuracy was just 65.7% and he only managed to connect on 22.4% of his crosses. His last season at Real Madrid was truly excellent, but one has to wonder whether or not it fits into the category of World Class due to his low goal return. His assist record however speaks for itself and as Van Gaal has commented that United’s creative play has been lacking his last season shows he could be the creative spark they need, however if he is the one playing the final balls he cannot be the one running onto the final ball. This could be argued to simply be another number 10 for United, not the penetrative attacker they need.
When we look at his overall 4 year career at Real Madrid this is where we can start to make a distinction between Di Maria and perhaps the player United need. In 4 years for Real Di Maria featured 190 times, racking up 36 goals and 69 assists. That’s an average of 1 goal every 5.2 games and 1 assist every 2.75 games. On an international level in that time he featured 39 times for Argentina, scoring 9 goals for his country, averaging 1 goal every 4.33 games.
For both club and country Di Maria has not been the star man, playing behind Ronaldo and Messi respectively. But when you look at the statistics you begin to see why. When a player is world class, regardless of whom he’s playing alongside for better or worse, he shows his class. Di Maria’s statistics over the last 4 years have shown that although he is an outstanding player and one of the best at his particular role, he is not the star man and he is not comparable to the world’s best players.
Position and Role
This is the area of most concern in terms of bringing the best out of Di Maria. First we have to assess what role Di Maria plays best in and in what formation, second we have to assess the formation he is likely to feature in and what role he will take. First and foremost I must make a clarification; Di Maria is not a winger. At least not a traditional one, rather he is the more modern winger, whose role is not to provide crosses but to start attacks and be on the receiving end of them. Perhaps the most comparable player to Di Maria is the player who seems to have displaced him at Real, Gareth Bale. Di Maria, like Bale, plays on the wing but is not a competent crosser of the ball, rather his role is play the raking diagonal passes to the opposite onrushing attacker, or to cut inside and pass through the forward running off the shoulder or to himself shoot at goal. This role means he is competent on both the left and right wings, but only on the virtue he will have strong tendency to drift towards the centre of the pitch, be that off the ball runs, playing the ball or when he is dribbling into space. The specific role he fills is that of the inside forward, a player who acts as another attacker only playing off the striker in behind or on either flank. Di Maria is not best positioned in behind as though he ends up filling a similar role it is more about having that space to move into, rather than be occupying originally that makes Di Maria’s runs so hard to track by the full backs. Last season Real were tactically diverse alternating between a 4-3-2-1, a 4-3-3 and a more rigid 4-4-2, but in all of those formations Di Maria took a wide role which involved him coming central as the wing backs covered the wide play. Importantly he had very little defensive work to do as Di Maria is not a naturally defensive player, aside from his high work rate, as he has little positional/tactical awareness when it comes to defensive play. In all these formations, regardless of whether or not Di Maria was an out and out winger or playing more centrally, his role was to positionally situate himself on the flank, only to come inside to play the ball or run on. To this, Di Maria is the epitome of the modern inside forward.
At the moment United appear to be playing a 3-4-1-2 formation; it’s the formation they’ve used in all their competitive games so far and it’s the formation they train in. This is immediately where we begin to see a problem as Di Maria does not have a single natural position, or position he can be at his best, in this formation. If Di Maria plays in his more natural role, on the wing, then in a 3-4-1-2 he is forced to play as a wing back and as a wing back it negates his capacity to make central runs, as he will be completely exposing the flank in the event of a turnover of possession. United would have to sacrifice all defensive capacity in the wing back position Di Maria plays in order to put him on the flank. Further, if they didn’t sacrifice defensive capacity, if they made him play as a complete wing-back then he is totally wasted, as wasted as Mata was out wide last season. Di Maria would be forced to track back and to restrain himself on attacking play, for thought of being exposed defensively. Equally he would not be able to come in centrally, negating his best movement and the area where he gets most of his assists. The only attacking positions that would be viable as a wing back for Di Maria would be down the flank, getting to the by-line and crossing, which as we’ve already covered crossing is far from Di Maria’s strong suit. In a 3-4-1-2 if they play him as a wing-back then it is an individual error, as it will not get the best out of Di Maria and will be as wasteful as the signing of Juan Mata last year, if they play him as a winger then it will be a tactical error as the defence will be brutally exposed on that flank time after time, or the defence will squeeze across and there will be too many horizontal gaps for runners to expose. Either way putting Di Maria on the flank in a 3-4-1-2 is either not playing to Di Maria’s best strengths or not playing to the team’s best strengths. The other option is to play him centrally, in behind Rooney and Van Persie. However this leaves Mata stranded on the flank, as a wing-back, or on the bench. Equally it is not Di Maria’s best position, as he can no longer do what makes him so potent; rushing into central positions from wide positions, rather he is forced to occupy that position permanently, negating his capacity to make runs and create space either centrally or on the flank for the overlapping wing back. Playing Di Maria in the middle would not give him the space he needs to play to his best and would force Mata, himself a £37 million signing, to play hopelessly out of position or not at all.
Now whilst Di Maria would be a world class signing and could play to his best unopposed in a 4-3-3, a 4-3-2-1 or a 4-4-2, there is no natural position to play in a 3-4-1-2 and no position he can play to his best. However Van Gaal seems determined to play to a 3-4-1-2 and has said in interviews that Di Maria will have to adapt to their game and if Di Maria is to play in this formation he will most likely be, in a fully fit squad, utilised as the right wing back to make space for Shaw on the left and due to the fact there are no competent players in that right wing back position. Whilst Di Maria is definitely an improvement on Valencia, who seems to have occupied that spot, playing him in this position will negate his ability to play to his highest level. To get the best out of Di Maria then, Van Gaal will need to make a tactical switch up, but given his current conviction to 3-4-1-2 and his comments in the press, this seems unlikely. However at the very least this move gives Van Gaal a lot more tactical options then he already had.
Now for the messy business of pricing. The reported fee for Di Maria is £59.7 million, with add-ons could end up coming to closer to £70 million. When you throw in his contract costs, wages, bonuses and loyalty fees this overall cost will come closer to £100 million. When you consider Gareth Bale cost £78 million in transfer fees, somewhere between £8 million to £18 million more, the scale of this transfer is truly revealed. Cristiano Ronaldo’s record transfer was £80 million, just £2 million above Bales. Angel Di Maria’s move is a British transfer record, £9.7 million above Fernando Torres £50 million record, which for a club without Champions League football and near enough a snowballs chance in hell of winning the league is more of a risk then Balotelli’s transfer, as with little resale possibility or likelihood and the transfer being at the maximum end of the inflated transfer scale, it is questionable how much this £59.7 million will boost the team’s chances to ascend in the world of football. For the outlay it is questionable how much of a return they can get from a player who isn’t a game-changer, a match-winner. When you are spending this level of money clubs need to be buying player’s who will single-handedly win games and Di Maria, unlike Bale or Ronaldo, is not that kind of player, rather he is a supporting player, the player who supplies and plays off the game-changer, to enable him to be the match-winner. As far as the costs go United have paid far too much for Di Maria, for what he delivers his price should have been more around £35-45 million mark. However football transfers run on the theory of subjective value; a player is worth as much as the buying club is willing to pay and the selling club is willing to accept and due to United’s situation the price was always going to be inflated.
What United Need
A lot of the debate has been about whether or not United could have spent the money better. United, unlike clubs like Chelsea and City, do not have an unlimited transfer fund to spend as they are a club run for profit, whereas the owners of Chelsea and City are happy to pump money into the club as they don’t mind too much whether or not they make much money from it, particularly Abramovich of Chelsea. In this window United have spent near £131.7 million in transfer fees, which will be much more once additional costs are taken into consideration, so for United’s spending, there is only so much more they can do in this one window and many United fans would argue that they have not signed the players they needed. In terms of who is essential to United’s system it would be easy to argue that United need a world class Centre-back, someone like Dortmund’s Hummels or newly signed Benatia at Bayern. Another essential player would be a central defensive midfielder, someone who is a genuine ball winner capable of effectively breaking up play and starting up an attack and crucially in a 3-4-1-2 can protect and cover the defence. The optimum player would have been Sami Khedira, who is probably the world’s best ball-winning midfielder, a player who was in his last year of his contract and open to a move, so would have arguably cost less then he should of. Another good option would have been Sporting’s William Carvalho, who though a player more for the future would still have provided the strength they needed in the centre of the pitch. However all of these players would have cost £20+ million, probably nearer £30 million, which considering the extensive outlay United have already spent is an unlikely figure they are further to spend. United are still being linked strongly to Daley Blind though, a central defensive midfielder and left back, with Edwin Van Der Sar, who serves on the Ajax board, spotted at Carrington yesterday.
United need strengthening all around the park, with the team having a distinct lack of world class players across all positions. But with the additional cost of Di Maria to the already extensive spending it is now unlikely that United will have the capacity or capability to buy the players they need, as many, like Benatia and Khedira, are no longer available. Whilst Daley Blind will fit in with Van Gaal’s tactics it is again a position of little need, as United are strong at left back and in the deep-lying playmaker role in the middle, with Herrera, Carrick, Fletcher, Fellaini and Cleverly all filling that role. United this year seem to be signing the players that are wanted, rather than the players that are needed by the club – something which served them in no favourable way last season.
The signing of Angel Di Maria for £59.7 million has the potential to be an outstanding one for United, but only if United adapt to Di Maria rather than the other way around. If they play Di Maria as part of a 3-4-1-2, without strengthening the positions they need, then at £59.7 million this signing looks like it could be as big a flop as the previous British transfer record, Fernando Torres. United have been being pressured all window by their fans to buy a world class player, however they needed to buy the right world class player for their tactics and their needs. Di Maria is a player of the highest quality but United need to utilise him correctly otherwise he could end up being one of the biggest and worst panic buys in the history of football.