Manchester United vs PSG: The rise, fall and rise again of Angel Di Maria
An outcast at United the Argentine has become one of PSG’s most important players. This week he returns to Old Trafford
It wouldn’t be in Angel Di Maria’s character to say so publicly but, as he returns to Old Trafford this week, the Paris Saint-Germain forward badly wants to prove a point to a few current Manchester United figures who personally questioned that character.
Much of it stems from one explosive day in the dressing room when many of the players finally got fed up with the Argentine, and club officials decided it was time to sell up. After another disappointingly anonymous display, Wayne Rooney offered some robust criticism to Di Maria’s face. A proper argument erupted. Strong words were used.
Stronger words are still used about Di Maria from some of his former teammates. “Talented but a complete fanny” is a conspicuously consistent description. Others just felt he “wasn’t giving 100%”.
The vast majority at Old Trafford would agree the £60m signing was one of the biggest flops in the club’s history, and a symbolic expensive failure that perfectly reflected the dysfunction of the post-Ferguson era.
Many at PSG, however, would greatly dispute those perceptions of the popular Di Maria. Far from a weak character, they would argue he just needs the right setting to bring out real strength. This is after all a player who had the big-game mentality to be man of the match in a Champions League final, in 2014. This is the attacker so effective that his Argentina teammates have for a long time considered him the national team’s most important player after Leo Messi - who loves Di Maria.
The 30-year-old is one of a distinctive group to have played with Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, but has crucially excelled with every one of them. Far from the flop he was at United, Di Maria has shown real resolve to recover from that spell and actually prove one of PSG’s most astute signings. He is off the back of the most productive season of his career in 2017-18 with 21 goals in 45 games.
He returns to Old Trafford in peak form, and all the more important a figure because of injuries to Neymar and Edinson Cavani. Di Maria is at least primed to make his former club pay in another way now, and show them the great number-seven a minority at Old Trafford still just lament they never got to see.
Some at United would acerbically say that - as well as the injuries to two of PSG's greater stars - will only increase the pressure on Di Maria to perform in that famous stadium, a challenge certain teammates felt he “could never hack” from the off. It will make his performance on Tuesday all the more compelling,
The context of his return is certainly more complex than his reputation at United. Part of it is that Di Maria is himself a more complex footballer than most. He certainly dwells on his game more than most players, and is more introspective. This is a figure who was so conscious of the intensely pressurised criticism within Argentina that he took the proactive step of consulting a psychologist. His typically confessional Players Tribune piece on missing the 2014 World Cup final features notable terms like “hopelessness”, “I couldn’t control anything” and “that’s the business of football that people do not always see”.
The impression is of a player who can feel victimised by circumstances. Those who say he needs the right setting to perform are correct.
Some of the problems at United, though, probably came from everything going too right at Real. Madrid. There is a further irony that Di Maria had such issues with Louis van Gaal, given that one of the best spells in his career had come under the Dutch coach’s direct successor at Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho had specifically lobbied for his signing on arriving at Madrid in 2010.
Considered a star winger on the level of Paulo Futre and Luis Figo in Portugal from his time with Benfica, Di Maria hadn’t just earned a move to the Bernabeu but also a prominent place in the Jorge Mendes empire.
He was almost the perfect Mourinho player, in more ways than one. There was first of all the fact he was a talented attacker versatile enough to play in many positions, including defensive midfield, and industrious enough to “run all day”. There was then the fact he was one of the increasingly rare players at Madrid almost completely subservient to the Mourinho regime. Teammates did see him as a meek teacher’s pet, as discord with the manager came close to a team uprising throughout 2012. One story has it that Di Maria had complained about how he’d been warned Mourinho would publicly criticise him, to tactically set an example.
Either way, he wasn’t meek on the pitch.
His energy ensured he was a crucial tactical link in a lightning counter-attacking team. It was this that made him especially important to Argentina in their run to three successive finals from 2014 to 2016. Di Maria offered an essential “change of rhythm” and was not just versatile in position. Coaches marvelled at how he could play “short or long”, “go inside or outside”, or play “collectively or individually”. He was also a hugely unselfish player with a nose for goal. A peak came with that uproarious Messi-assisted strike against Switzerland in the 2014 World Cup last-16, as Di Maria enjoyed a wave of form from that Champions League final victory over Atletico Madrid.
A real nadir all too abruptly followed. Missing the World Cup final itself was traumatic enough, but there was also one of the factors linked to it. Di Maria has revealed that, already struggling with injury throughout that tournament, he got a letter from Madrid in the lead-up to the final requesting he doesn’t play as they wanted to sell him to bring in James Rodriguez. Di Maria’s link to the Mourinho regime had by now worked against him. Florentino Perez wanted something flashy and new. Luckily for Madrid, so did United. That was what signing Di Maria would represent, for a club now needing to make waves in the market.
Unluckily for Di Maria, he really didn’t want to go to Old Trafford, but there were literally no other options. The Argentine thereby also represented an example of the gilded cage that footballers can live in, where their very success effectively restricts their options. No one else could afford to buy Di Maria, even if he was willing to take a pay cut.
He just never wanted to be at United, but really had no choice, and thereby never settled in a city.
That might have been something that could have been worked out, had it not been for the bigger problem. Van Gaal
Di Maria, according to many, “hated” the Dutch coach. It was here that the player’s versatility and talent almost worked against him, too, and another peak - albeit a brief one - just led to another low. Di Maria scored that sublime chip against Leicester City, but the haphazard 5-3 defeat United suffered made Van Gaal realise the team were far too open. The shackles came on, and Di Maria was shunted all over the pitch. As much as anything, Van Gaal wouldn’t allow the runs and releases that really made the Argentine’s game. The two men just didn’t match up in any sense, either in what the manager wanted from the player on the pitch, or what the player needed from the manager off it.
At the 2015 Copa America in Chile, the Argentine technical staff were shocked at how Di Maria had seemed to lose his “rhythm”, and put all the blame on Van Gaal. They felt the United boss “ruined” the player. Di Maria was really enjoying none of his United experience. He wasn’t well liked in the dressing room, and many found him morose and not good for the team. One key player felt he just couldn’t handle what it meant to play for United.
What is probably closer to the truth was that an already sensitive character couldn’t handle the situation he was in at that moment. All of this was brought to a head with the burglary Di Maria suffered, that just made him “desperate to leave”.
PSG, constricted by Financial Fair Play the previous year, finally made their move. And at a lower price.
They found a player at a low ebb, but one immediately personally happier. The surroundings of the city and South American culture of the club suited him perfectly. The relative ease of the French league for PSG also helped, but the fact Di Maria was performing better also brought out his resolve. Unlike at United, he was now ready for challenges - like Neymar’s arrival. The expectation was Di Maria would be squeezed out, and PSG were willing to sell. Instead, he stayed, and really knuckled down. His willingness to fill in in midfield eventually ensured he never left there, and Neymar’s presence began to suit him. The positional freedom the Brazilian enjoys also freed space in behind him, for Di Maria to run into and hit so many goals.
There was then the period when Neymar was injured at this time last year, and Di Maria was temporarily PSG’s top scorer. That is now especially relevant to this season’s last-16, as is his mood.
Di Maria is just a player who feels himself, and whose personality has become a real plus for his club. He never complains in a squad that has so many egos, and is a guiding presence for young players like Juan Bernat and Leandro Paredes. The word is he “brings a different profile” to PSG and a lot of energy
In other words, everything missing from his time at United. Then again, he also has everything he was missing at United.
An Old Trafford outcast has become one of PSG’s most important players.
It has made quite the difference, but what will really tell is whether Di Maria now proves the difference in this tie.