When the Going Got Tough, Di Maria Got Going

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

In the end, Angel Di Maria’s only positive contribution to Manchester United’s history might be that he made other, less-heralded #7’s like Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia, look not-so-bad in retrospect. Oh, and he did score a ridiculous goal against Leicester City that was voted “Goal of the Year” by the Premier League. That was pretty cool.

After that, there aren’t many nice things to say about his time at Old Trafford.

Di Maria will forever be known as the most expensive flop in Premier League history (at least until someone else comes along that costs more and plays worse than he did during his year at United). According to reports, Di Maria will join Paris St. Germain at some point in the coming weeks. The price tag is still being debated with some reports pegging the transfer fee at £46.5 million while others saying that PSG are trying to get him for as little as £28 million plus add-ons.

Either way, it looks like his time as a United player is finished. While his reputation as a world class star remains (why else would Paris St. Germain be willing to pay even £28 million for a guy who couldn’t dislodge Ashley Young?), he’ll find it hard to shed his reputation as a man who reacts to adversity by turning tail and running away. Mesut Özil had a rough start to his Arsenal career, but he fought for his place and started playing well towards the end of last season. Juan Mata, who, like Di Maria, wasn’t exactly aching for a move to United, weathered a rough start to his Old Trafford career and emerged as one of the van Gaal’s most important players. Even Juan Sebastian Veron, another expensive Argentine who underwhelmed during his debut season, gave it another year at Old Trafford before quitting.

Di Maria? He sure talked a good game. “I’m not happy with my first year in England,” Di Maria said in May. “I moved here from Real to win titles and this season has been very bad for me. I’m frustrated because I want to do better. The fans in England have not seen the real Di Maria. I know I can offer a better level. This year was not good enough. My challenge is not for one year, but to become part of the history of Manchester United.” He reiterated his stance in June as the PSG links first started manifesting themselves. “Now I will play the Copa America and then I will move back to Manchester for next season and do my best there,” he said.

What happened between then and now? Maybe it was all talk so that prospective employers would know that he wasn’t heartless or cowardly. Or maybe, as he was lying on the turf during the Copa America Final in Chile after suffering yet another injury, the thought of returning to the Premier League and taking another beating was too much for him. At least now, he’ll get to ply his trade in a less competitive and physical league. These days, Ligue 1 is about as interesting as a Harlem Globetrotters match and PSG has won the last three league titles by an average of nearly 10 points. Despite PSG’s domestic dominance, the club has yet to get past the Champions League quarterfinals during that time. And Di Maria wants to join that team? It would have been understandable if he had gone back to Real Madrid (or even joined Barcelona or Bayern Munich), since those teams play in more challenging domestic leagues and routinely compete for the Champions League title. Instead, he’ll be the latest expensive toy to join the many shiny objects currently on display at nouveau-riche PSG.

To be fair, there’s plenty of blame to go around for Di Maria not succeeding at United. It could be argued that Di Maria was never a good fit for either Louis van Gaal or Manchester United and that Di Maria was a panic buy from a desperate team (United announced his signing the same night it got thrashed by MK Dons in the League Cup – arguably the worst defeat of van Gaal’s tenure). Ex-Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti warned United that Di Maria was sloppy and wasteful with his possession and implied that he was selfish. At first, it seemed like sour grapes, or even an attempt to smear a once-popular player on his way out of town. But it was clear, almost immediately, that Ancelotti was right. While his daring and (sometimes reckless) style might have worked on some of Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams, Di Maria’s penchant for giving the ball away often led to opposition counter-attacks and, more than once, led directly to opposition goals. His speed will be missed as he was one of the few United players that could actually trouble opposing defenses with his pace, but his reckless style ensured that he’d never be a favorite of van Gaal’s.

Then again, van Gaal didn’t do Di Maria any favors by making him play several different positions during the 2014-15 season. He started out as a left winger in a midfield diamond before being moved to the right wing and then behind the striker. He struggled to find his form and an injury against Hull City in November was the beginning of the end for him. A January break-in at his house in Cheshire seemed to rattle him and, for the rest of the season, he looked like a shell of the player he was when he first joined the team. His tantrum against Arsenal in the F.A. Cup was widely interpreted as a “get me outta here” plea and his refusal to push on during the season finale against Hull in order to save himself for the Copa America (a tournament where he played quite well despite getting hurt in the Final) was another sign that his days at Old Trafford were over.

Instead, it looks like another La Liga winger who has won everything there is to win and has played an important role for some of the best teams in recent memory could be taking Di Maria’s place at Manchester United. Barcelona winger/forward Pedro is far less talented than Di Maria. However, as this Squawka article shows, Pedro’s versatility and unselfishness is a better fit for van Gaal’s scheme than Di Maria. At one-third Di Maria’s price tag, he won’t have the same kind of pressure or level of expectation on his shoulders that proved too heavy for Di Maria to carry on his slender frame.

So long, Angel. Don’t let the door hit you where the Good Lord split you…