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Angel Di Maria’s Manchester United career started so promisingly.
After the excitement of his acquisition, he made an immediate impact on the team. Short of fitness, he nonetheless put on a good display in his debut at Turf Moor against Burnley.
It was his home debut, however, that really set pulses racing. A goal and an assist, four key passes, two brilliant dribbles and a directness and verve made him seem a lock for United’s Player of the Season award.
His next game saw him repeat his goal-and-assist trick. He scored a brilliant scooped effort against Leicester City during a period of play wherein United truly looked like world-beaters. The team’s subsequent second-half collapse foreshadowed what would happen to Di Maria’s season.
It did not happen straight away—two weeks later, he grabbed another goal and assist as United beat Everton at home.
It would be one day short of three months until he next scored. In that time, he continued to provide assists at a reasonable rate until an injury suffered early on in a home match against Hull City on November 29 changed the course of his season.
It is hard to remember too many good performances since—Burnley at home in February perhaps being one exception. Things reached their nadir when he endured a horrendous three-game run in late February and early March.
He was substituted at half-time against Sunderland at home and after 60 minutes against Newcastle United away before he got himself foolishly sent off against Arsenal in the FA Cup. From then on, his season has been reduced to cameo appearances. It appeared Louis van Gaal had run out of patience with his player.
It simply does not look as though Di Maria is adapting to the Dutchman’s philosophy.
In the stark light of print, that looks fairly damning. It is also not entirely surprising, as Van Gaal has a history of clashing with improvisational, creative players.
Jonathan Liew, in the Telegraph in August 2014, wrote of Van Gaal’s first stint at Barcelona: “[Rivaldo] was growing increasingly frustrated at being marooned on the left and would often wander out of position. The training ground and the Nou Camp alike would reverberate to the sound of Van Gaal screaming: ‘Rivaldo! Listen! Do as I tell you!'”
However, in spite of this, for those of us who would love to see Di Maria stay at United and improve next season, there is plenty of reason for optimism.
Firstly, there is the matter of his output. He leads United’s players in assists this season despite being played in a variety of positions and having played over 1,000 league minutes fewer than, say, Wayne Rooney. His potential importance to the team is such that Van Gaal really should make every effort to accommodate him.
If Van Gaal’s United play a more settled system next season, perhaps he will find a more settled role for Di Maria and El Fideo will find the learning easier.
The player himself has made clear his desire to stay and make a difference.
He left Real Madrid having established himself as one of their most important players, but that was a hard-won position. Having been booed off the pitch in January 2014, he fought his way back to prominence, turning in a Man of the Match performance in that season’s Champions League final.
As Jonathan Fadugba wrote for FourFourTwo in December 2014, “Proving people wrong has been a consistent theme of Di Maria’s career.”
That internal fortitude will be crucial if Di Maria is to have a better season next time out. He has always come good before. He offers Van Gaal something that none of his other players do—a level of class and quality that is in short supply elsewhere in the team.
Between his ability and his determination, and the fact that he will presumably be playing in a more well-balanced side next term, there are plenty of reasons to believe Di Maria will come good at United.