Angel Di Maria was cast as the pantomime villain by many Manchester United fans last summer but the evidence now suggests he was entirely justified in wanting to extricate himself from the Van Gaal process.
“Van Gaal has his philosophy and it is one of the reasons why I wanted to leave Manchester United,” Di María told ESPN in Argentina. “It’s difficult to adapt to Van Gaal. I had a number of flare ups with him.”
At the time, this was seen as a player simply not wanting to adapt but this needs to be re-examined now, especially as Van Gaal seeks another player with “speed and creativity.”
The Dutchman has a history of struggling with creative talents that excel elsewhere: Riquelme, Rivaldo, Bergkamp, Ibrahimovic to name just a few. This can be traced back to his philosophy and playing style.
Regarding Di Maria, consider Van Gaal’s comments after withdrawing him early during a game against Crystal Palace in November of last season:
“He is a dribbler but sometimes you cannot dribble. You have to make it a pass game, and Di Maria is not a player who wants to give a pass every time he gets the ball.”
Van Gaal added that Di Maria was losing the ball frequently and “that was not good for the balance of the team.” Later in the season he said:
“The players have had to adapt to the philosophy and Di Maria has to do that…it’s important that he wants to do that in his head. When you are open for coaching then you can change. But a change of behaviour is difficult… always the old errors are coming back.“
This cast doubt on whether Van Gaal saw Di Maria succeeding in his side and if the player was at odds with the manager tactically, it would explain why he pushed for a move. Maybe it wasn’t a case of not having the fight to get back into the team but knowing that resistance to Louis is futile.
Footballing legend Johan Cruyff once noted that he “would have failed the test” to make it into Van Gaal’s team. Dennis Bergkamp is another high profile example of Van Gaal’s limitations with integrating flair:
“Louis is didactic. He gives his players instructions to make the system work. And the system is sacred. All players are equal to Van Gaal, big names do not exist for him, and everyone is subordinate to the team and his system. Cruyff being a great player encouraged individualists because they can decide matches. Van Gaal could not do that. It would also go against the team he is building.” – Bergkamp
Given how Van Gaal likes his teams - specifically the midfielders - to operate, the position Di Maria excelled in during his last season at Real Madrid was never going to be a position that he was going to flourish in. Herrera endured a spell as a substitute last season for similar reasons.
Herrera noted that Van Gaal used “to tell me off because I always looked for the ball, I wanted to have it, and I must wait for it.” Expanding on the manager’s philosophy he added:
“Van Gaal loves possession and doesn’t like to risk the ball. He wants long possessions and to keep the ball because he believes you create spaces staying in the right place, because the team have the quality to find you.”
Herrera adapted, won back his place in the team and enjoyed a strong end to last season. Regarding Di Maria, Herrera suggested that “he is maybe the best in the team one-v-one… Now we have a manager who wants to keep the ball, who wants to play one or two touches.”
Di Maria is at his best committing players one v one. If he is restricted to one touch and then a pass, he will have been justified in wondering if there was any point in staying in Manchester. Again, Bergkamp articulates this idea succinctly:
“If you have ten mediocre painters and Rembrandt, do you tell Rembrandt that he does not have to imagine, that he doesn’t represent more than the others? Or are you going to give him the feeling that he is special and let him display it, so he can produce his finest work?”
Di Maria probably reached the conclusion that he could never have produced his “finest work” under Van Gaal, whether he was settled in Manchester or not. He wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last to be stifled under the Iron Tulip.
One of Cruyff’s more scathing remarks on his compatriot was that “training players his way prepares them for a life in an office, not a football pitch.” Di Maria’s performances for PSG this season suggest he has found a more productive working environment. Van Gaal’s office was no place for Angel.