The Argentine has made an instant, electrifying impression on English football, but can he continue to thrill while also leading Manchester United’s long-overdue revival?
Few will mourn the loss of the drama and controversy created by Luis Suarez now that he has swapped Merseyside for Catalonia, though his rare breed of genius, which walked a line between joyous frivolity and ruthless precision, unquestionably leaves behind a gaping hole. The mantle of the Premier League’s great entertainer is up for grabs and, just like so many Manchester United No.7s in the past, Angel Di Maria is ready to claim the title as his own.
The Argentine has made just five appearances for United since completing a British-record €75 million (£59.7m) move to Old Trafford, but has already shown both what a phenomenal talent he is and hinted at the galvanising effect he can have on a side who lost their mojo under David Moyes and offered up precious few signs of finding it again in the early days of Louis van Gaal’s pre-Di Maria re-building.
The Argentine, though, has brought an immediate injection of flair and an arrogance that had become virtually extinct under Moyes – and had arguably been dying out even before his arrival, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s post-Cristiano Ronaldo squad bereft of stardust and built only to be more than the sum of their largely functional parts.
Only against Burnley, on a debut cut short by injury, and West Ham has Di Maria failed to both score and assist in a match, having rattled up three apiece in barely 400 minutes of action. As a mark of his Midas touch, even his wayward shots have turned into assists, even his crosses have turned into goals.
More than just his production is the sheer, unbridled fun that effuses from his every cultured touch and slaloming, catch-me-if-you-can running style. That lung-busting approach left him faint in the Copa del Rey, though he continued to surge forward, and it was a trademark “zig-zag”, as Xabi Alonso dubbed it, that helped seal the Champions League in Lisbon. Di Maria, like Suarez before him, is a blur of perpetual motion, always driving forward and committing players – a gliding guillotine of creativity.
They are players all too rare in modern football’s world of efficiency and absolutes, players whose flicks and feigns could veer towards being overly elaborate and superfluous if they did not so often result in match-winning brilliance. It is a marriage of both entertaining, care-free artistry and cut-throat, merciless annihilation.
And so it has been for Di Maria in his brief United career so far. He has been the spark they have craved, a provider and scorer of goals, and the sole blotch on his copy book is that Leicester City were able to condemn his stunning, Karel Poborsky-esque lob to the annals of irrelevancy by overturning a 3-1 deficit that had been built on the cunning and hard running of the Argentine.
The 2014-15 Premier League season already feels like being a vintage year for attackers, such is the abundance of talent pulsating through the division, but even now Di Maria is beginning to stand apart.
There are challengers, of course; Diego Costa has been ferocious in front of goal since moving to England, Cesc Fabregas has been a hugely influential and creative presence, Sergio Aguero has once again shown his devastating, unerring finishing. But none will be asked to carry their sides quite like Di Maria, none will have to disguise so many sins, none will have to transform their club’s fortunes to so great an extent.
For the teams at the top it is, to paraphrase Al Pacino, the inches that make the difference, but not so for United who have miles to make up. Chelsea, for example, needed only tweaks to turn a side who should have won the title last season, even in spite of their absentee strikeforce, into bonafide champions. Now Costa has brought the required cutting edge and has Fabregas – and a horde of playmakers – to feed him.
Di Maria, by contrast, often appears to be a lone ranger in a team that needs significantly more than mere finishing touches and who picked up just a single point more across 2014 than the likes of Stoke City and Crystal Palace.
Yet he is still on course to overtake his Chelsea counterpart in assists. The Argentine does, somewhat surprisingly, create a goalscoring opportunity more regularly than Fabregas, though so far has been let down by a profligate striking trio. While Costa has scored with an astonishing 47 per cent of his shots on goal, Wayne Rooney, United’s most clinical forward this term, has scored with just 25% of his efforts.
United’s forward line, and the team as a whole, are now looking to Di Maria to breathe fresh life and impetus into the club – and it has started already. The former Benfica attacker’s presence has changed the mentality at Old Trafford and altered the very nature of how Van Gaal feels he can set up and shape his squad.
Until Di Maria’s arrival, the Dutchman was preparing to rely upon the 3-5-2 formation that had helped a mediocre Netherlands side – who have lost three of their four matches under Van Gaal’s successor, Guus Hiddink – achieve a third-place finish at the World Cup. That same system was to be implemented to counteract the lack of balance and quality in the United side he inherited.
Before signing Di Maria, the veteran coach expanded on his team’s limitations: “We don’t have any wingers to give us attacking width. Or, I should say, we don’t have wingers of the highest level, like Ronaldo or Di Maria or somebody like that. So, I have to play another way.” Not so any more. Now the task facing Van Gaal is not to hide and reinforce weaknesses, but to find a way to harness Di Maria to the maximum.
Perhaps the biggest question mark that remains is whether Di Maria has the mentality needed to become a leading man. For so long the 26-year-old has been the wingman for both club and country, servicing Lionel Messi for Argentina and Ronaldo at the Bernabeu.
Now he must step into the limelight on his own and become United’s focal point, their leader. Such is the team’s dependence on the Argentine they cannot afford for him to have the off-days that would previously have been compensated for by the relentlessness of Ronaldo and Messi. Performances like his outing in the World Cup last-16 clash with Belgium, where he lost possession 51 times, are no longer acceptable. Now he must always deliver, a responsibility few bear naturally.
But it is a challenge he must rise to. Part of Suarez’s unparalleled greatness was that, alongside his jaw-dropping talent, he dragged an otherwise average Liverpool team to within a slip of the title. Di Maria must do similarly to not only confirm his status as the Premier League’s greatest showman, but as the division’s most singularly decisive player too.