A club record £59.7 Million move from Real Madrid for Argentinean winger Angel Di Maria has got the clubs’ supporters cheering yet again. As the hopes built from a fruitful pre-season came crashing down like a castle of cards after the lackluster start to the season, the fans needed a breath of renewed hope and Di Maria seems to be the answer. When club legends like Paul Scholes & Gary Neville themselves feel excited over Di Maria’s arrival, it clearly reveals the obvious quality he brings to the squad. And there is no doubting his abilities as a player. But the only question is- was he the player that United needed right now?
Unsurprisingly, I seem to be one of those few (if not the only) Manchester United fans to even have this doubt. But with the current crop of players in the side, there is no denying that this question is not out of context. Before I am pelted with curses, let me explain why.
DI MARIA’S STRONGEST POSITION
Di Maria’s naturally a right sided winger who prefers cutting inside and crossing into the box, but is also capable of playing on the left or as the most advanced midfielder just behind the striker. Last season at Real Madrid, the excess of attacking options forced him into the left of a 3-man central midfield where he flourished quite well.
THE 3-5-2, UNITED’S CURRENT FORMATION
Louis van Gaal has almost always stuck to the 3-5-2 (more precisely a 3-4-1-2) formation from the beginning of pre-season until the last match they played, against Sunderland. It has two wing backs parading either wings in support of the 3-man backline and also the attackers upfront.
Closer looks at teams that play the 3-5-2 reveal that most of them have natural full backs in the wing back positions. Even Van Gaal’s Netherland’s side had Daryl Janmaat and Daley Blind or Bruno Martins Indi at wing back positions, and they are all more defense-minded players. Of course, there are exceptions. Dirk Kuyt for Netherlands, Juan Cuadrado for Fiorentina and Mauricio Isla for Chile have all done well at wing-back roles despite being attack minded players. But their advantage was that they all had either 1 or 2 strong defensive midfielders sitting in front of the 3 men defense, who shared a major chunk of their defensive responsibilities letting them enough freedom to go upfront.
Currently, United neither has a fully fit full back nor aphysical defensive midfielder as mentioned above. Rafael and Shaw are fighting hard to stay fit, and while Darren Fletcher and Ander Herrera have done reasonably well from central midfield roles, none of United’s current lot have the quality of someone like Nigel De Jong, to provide their wing backs with an unrestricted license to burst forward. This has basically led United to drop off from a 3-5-2 to 5-3-2 almost always, that too with more attack-minded players like Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard in the wing-back roles. And with United’s central midfield unable to provide enough cover these players have been forced to play in an unfamiliar defensive mindset, thereby occasionally exhibiting their defensive frailties.
In such a situation, handing Di Maria a starting berth in the wing-back role does not seem clever. With his work rate and speed, Di Maria will surely be an upgrade over Valencia or Lingard on the right or Young on the left. But the lack of defensive support from the middle would restrict Di Maria’s runs upfront. Instead if Di Maria is allowed to run, that would put the defense considerably at risk. Unless United address their issues in central midfield and to an extent at centre-back, playing Di Maria at wing-back does not look a great idea at the moment.
To start him in the advanced midfielder role also seems out of the context as that would mean he would have to oust Juan Mata to play in that position. Benching the diminutive Spaniard would be a shame as he is a player alongside whom even Di Maria can thrive even better. By cutting out the consistent supply of chances Mata opens up, United will put itself in greater peril.
That leaves us with one role-the role he played to perfection at Real last time- the central midfield. But Manchester United is unlike Real where he had a more solid backline and a decent defensive midfielder alongside him in either Xabi Alonso or Asier Illaramendi to support him. It is to be noted that Ander Herrera was at his best last season for Atletico Bilbao when allowed the license to go upfront, but at United he has been considerably limited to a more defense-minded role. Di Maria’s arrival alongside him would meanhe would have to drop behind even further.Fletcher and Herrera have considerably limited their attacking instincts and often shared their defensive duties and to put an even more attacking player into the mix makes the issue even further. Michael Carrick’s arrival might ease things, but Carrick is still a few months away from fitness and United cannot afford to wait until then.
Thus, it is clear that there are a few concerns when accommodating Di Maria into a 3-5-2 with the current squad. With a stronger defensive midfielder or a more resolute backline, it would have been safe to play Di Maria in the wing-back position, or alternatively with better players at wing-back and centre-back, Di Maria could have slotted into central midfield. But without either of these, a 3-5-2 does not look the right formation for United to accommodate Di Maria.
THE ALTERNATIVES? A 4-4-2? A 4-3-3?
A 4-4-2 diamond looks good enough to accommodate all of United’s quality attacking players. With Di Maria in either of the two flanks, Valencia, Young or Januzaj could take the other flank, and Mata can continue his stint in ‘the hole’. But one serious concern yet again would be that it would be Herrera or Fletcher that would go into the holding midfielder role and would have their attacking roles completely cut out. With Rojo arriving at United, shifting into a conventional 4-man backline would not be a bad idea with him at left-back until Shaw returns. But with United struggling at the back even against comparatively weaker teams, the question remains whether this fragile backline would be able to cope especially against stronger oppositions.
The 4-3-3 again safeguards the interests of Fletcher, Herrera, Mata and Di Maria, as all get comfortable roles. But the issue of this formation would be that Wayne Rooney would be shrunk to a wide role with Robin Van Persie likely to get the central striker role. Rooney have played in a wide role before, but has looked wayward there. With the defense looking awful with only 2 clean sheets in the last 10 matches they have played, the best thing for United would be incorporating Mata, Di Maria, Van Persie and Rooney in the best way possible, so that the attacking returns keep coming. The 4-3-3 would mean putting 1 out of the 4’s potential in jeopardy.
There is no denying that Angel Di Maria is a world-class player. Definitely, he has raised the quality of the squad with his arrival. But as deeper analysis suggests, there were some glaring weaknesses in the squad that needed to be addressed with greater urgency. A team that plays a 3-man defense needs more quality as well as quantity, andUnitedneed to stop jugglingthe 3 injury prone senior players and 2 youth players at their disposal and sign one more centre-back in addition to Marcus Rojo. Rafael and Valencia’s injury woes also need to be addressed especially with Van Gaal’s penchant for the 3-5-2 demanding a solid wing-back. Manchester United also needs someone who can provide a strong physical presence in the middle of the ground.
With all these areas to be addressed, United signing Di Maria looks more like a forced signing, to keep the fans happy and the club’s high profile status intact. It is important that the club and fans realize the fact that United might be the biggest club in the world, but for a player his career is of primary interest. With no European football to offer, United might have a huge mistake pointlessly chasing players that prefer a bigger platform to perform than the reputation of being at a prestigious club like United. For instance, United should have sealed the deal for Ezequiel Garay instead of chasing Mats Hummels and Mehdi Benatia, who might be more popular but do not offer anything significantly greater than Garay.
With the transfer window nearing its end, United have spent around 140 million on 4 players and yet have gaps to fill. Given all of United’s current limitations in the squad, it is uncertain what plans Van Gaal has for Di Maria but wherever he is set to be slotted into he does not seem to be a perfect fit.Di Maria’s arrival is a definite boost, but it would have been far better if United had filled the voids first and then made Di Maria their final marquee signing. But with the voids yet to be filled, it is safe to say that Di Maria is a great signing but one that was definitely not essential.
I recently came across a tweet in reply to those like me, which said “Being upset at the Di Maria signing because it’s not what we need is like being upset because your girlfriend offers you sex when you’re hungry.” The counter that I have to it is that “Buying Di Maria is like buying an awesome blazer to wear over your 3 layers of shirts, while you are naked below the waist.’