After having the game of his life in the Champions League final in May, driving Real Madrid on to La Decima, Angel Di Maria was presented with his richly deserved man-of-the-match award in the depths of Lisbon’s Estadio Da Luz by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Did Ferguson ever covet the accomplished Argentina international, either before or after his move to Madrid from Benfica in 2010? Was Di Maria’s name ever on a shortlist of potential signings in the Indian Summer of the Glaswegian’s great career?
Probably not. After all, Di Maria is the kind of dynamic midfielder, oozing quality, who Ferguson studiously ignored after the summer of 2007, when he signed Anderson and Owen Hargreaves and apparently felt he was done with central midfielders for good.The Scot’s personal blind spot precluded the signing of such a player, to United's detriment in recent seasons.
Three months on from that famous night in Lisbon and, after the abortive reign of David Moyes and the flawed signing of Marouane Fellaini, it is to Di Maria that United have turned to pull them out of their post-Fergie funk.
After a poor start to the new season, Di Maria – at £59.7 million the most expensive signing in Premier League history – has been designated the man to finally take United forward. Fittingly, forward momentum is exactly what Di Maria offers as a player.
In the Champions League final, it was Di Maria’s dangerous and penetrative running – not the assembled talents of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo – which posed Atletico Madrid’s uncompromising defence the most problems. Two of his downfield charges brought yellow cards as he threatened to break through the Rojiblanco lines.
On his debut against Burnley, there were nascent signs that Di Maria will provide his new club with similar impetus, once this creaking and fractured United team finally finds some kind of form and shape.
Debates over where he would fit into the United team - was he a winger? or a wing-back? - were unneccesary. At Turf Moor he was unsurprisingly deployed alongside Juan Mata and in front of Darren Fletcher in a three-man midfield. It mirrored his use at Madrid last season under Carlo Ancelotti, alongside Luka Modric and in front of Xabi Alonso, with Ander Herrera presumably pencilled in for the Mata/Modric role and imminent new signing Daley Blind a possible contender for the Fletcher/Alonso position as the season progresses.
At every opportunity, Di Maria was looking to use that wonderful left foot of his to move play forward decisively and quickly. Whereas Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick’s prominence as practitioners of the sideways pass slowed United down in recent seasons, Di Maria should give them extra velocity. He has the courage to look for the forward pass, the trickier ball.
Right from the outset against Burnley – from his very first touch – he wanted to drive his team onward, whether dribbling through the centre or pinging direct balls over the top, one of which picked out Van Persie for United's best chance of an otherwise recognisably insipid display.
This direct approach was a facet of Di Maria’s game that Van Gaal chose to highlight when confirmation of his bold summer signing arrived: "He is a tremendously fast and incisive left-footed player who puts fear into the most accomplished defences. His dribbling skills and his ability to take on and beat opponents are a joy to watch. He is an excellent addition to the team."
These skills have been honed at all of his clubs – Rosario Central, Benfica and Real Madrid – and he arrives in England as that rarest of things for a Premier League signing: a fully evolved, world-class player approaching the very peak of his talents.
Still, Di Maria’s signing alone is not enough to cover up United’s many failings, which were in evidence again in another unimpressive performance against Burnley.
They still need to resolve their persistent problems in defence while acclimatising to a back three; they still need to work out how to use Juan Mata, if at all; and they still need to ensure that Van Persie and Rooney bring the best out of each other in attack rather than getting in each other’s way.
But Di Maria has at least given United something they have been lacking for years: a sense of progress and forward momentum in that central midfield area.
Tom Adams - @tomEurosport
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- Angel Di Maria
- Real Madrid
- Sir Alex Ferguson