Clubs always crave for superstar signings. Whether you are Mansfield Town or Manchester United, whether you play in front of 8,000 fans or close to 80,000, the desire to have the best possible team with the best players is one that is prevalent amongst football clubs and fans alike. So, when you sign one of the best players in the world for a record transfer fee, you would have thought that it would have been easy to fit him into the team.
But such is the reality of modern football and the importance of the right environment that that isn’t always the case. Manchester United and its supporters have certainly found that out for themselves with the signing of Angel Di Maria. The Argentinean turned 27 a few days but is still no closer to nailing down a slot for him in the United XI than he was at the start of the season when he moved from Real Madrid.
In more than five months, Di Maria has played in six completely distinct positions. Whether it is as the more-orthodox attacking midfielder at the tip or on the left of a diamond, the completely understandable role as a winger on the right or left, slightly curious yet still effective central midfielder in a 3-5-2 or the utterly baffling stint as a left wing-back and a striker in a two-man strike force.
To say that Louis Van Gaal is still to find Di Maria’s best position at Old Trafford would be the understatement of the year. To understand why it is so difficult, it is important to go into not just the style of the Argentinean’s play but also the school of thought that the Dutch manager comes from.
Firstly, let us look at the 27-year-old’s style of play.
If there is one thing that is striking about the attacker’s play is that he isn’t a one-trick pony. While there are some great players, such as Arjen Robben, with whom Di Maria has a lot in common, have just one way of playing and really just one effective position they can occupy, the Argentinean is different. He is far more versatile and his time at Real Madrid is a testament to that.
From being a winger, he was transformed into a central deep-lying attacking midfielder by Carlo Ancelotti. While the Italian can certainly claim credit for that, it is also the reason why the 27-year-old has found adapting to life at Old Trafford so difficult. At Madrid, Ancelotti found a perfect position for the Argentinean, which used all of his strengths, while at the same time being in sync with the team’s style of play.
Unfortunately for Di Maria, the flux that United are in, coupled with the arrival of a new manager with a lot of ideas has meant that finding a position that is custom-made for him is proving to be a lot harder than it should be.
Van Gaal, for all of his critics, has been consistent throughout his career. While he hasn’t always played the same formation at every club he has managed, he has shown that adaptability is his biggest asset. And has always been rewarded for just that.
As a Dutch traditionalist, Van Gaal believes in fluidity and that is one of the reasons why he has tried out so many formations with the Red Devils this season. While that has been a stick that many have used to beat him with, it is one that the fans, in particular, should have seen coming. Tactical versatility is always key on the Dutchman’s agenda and that is why, you will see a clear pattern amongst all the players he signed last summer.
While not all of his summer signings have been successful, they are all similar, in that they are versatile and all of them, bar Radamel Falcao, who is just a loan signing, can play in more than one position. What this has meant is that the Dutchman has almost used Di Maria as a guinea pig, to try and test in various formations in the hope that he can finally find the right match for him.
So far at least, only one conclusion can be drawn from Di Maria’s performances. It is that the Argentinean is at his most effective, when he is running at opposing defenders. Which has automatically meant that he has been far more effective on the wings as a traditional winger, like he was against Burnley or as a left-sided attacker in a diamond formation, as he was in his opening few games for the club.
So when it comes to looking at what his best position is, for the club, one key factor to consider is whether that position entitles him to grass he can run onto. This automatically dismisses the role of either a central midfielder or a striker. Which leaves us with a role on the wings, or as a central attacking midfielder.
Although the Red Devils haven’t lost when they have played him centrally as an attacking midfielder, that still encourages him to pass the ball rather than run at defenders. Which leaves with just one role, on the wings.
While it is true that Di Maria isn’t a traditional touch-line hugging winger, he is the archetypal modern winger. One who can cross, cut in and shoot and can both create and score goals. If Van Gaal really does want to get the best out of the Argentine attacker, playing him on the left side of a diamond is the way to go, unless of course the 63-year-old wants to go back to his Dutch roots and play a 4-3-3. In which way case, the 27-year-old can play where he was so effective for, when he was at Madrid, as a deep-lying attacking midfielder, starting slightly towards the left flank.