The purchase of Angel Di Maria should have been the cherry on the cake for van Gaal in the transfer window this summer. Instead, it feels more like a frantic panic buy.
The Argentine announced yesterday Manchester United was the only club he considered leaving Real Madrid for. Twelve months ago, his words would have sounded true- Manchester United had wrapped up title number twenty, Robin Van Persie looked absolutely talismanic, and Sir Alex Ferguson appeared to have made a prudent decision in appointing David Moyes his successor. Today, Di Maria’s words ring hollow, glossed over by his record British transfer fee.
The inevitable marketing campaign from United’s Mad Men will also go a long way to tempering questions over how Louis Van Gaal plans to deploy the versatile winger/midfielder/#10 this season. Perhaps the only certainty surrounding Di Maria is that he will play.
It is not often that a player of Di Maria’s ilk arrives from the continent, and Manchester United supporters will be anxious to see how, or if, Di Maria helps right the ship.
The issue then becomes not how or where Di Maria will play but which of the outfield players will he displace? No player has done enough to truly cement their place as first choice. Be it through injury or inconsistency, defenders, midfielders, and forwards have all looked off the pace and bereft of ideas.
Should Van Gaal stay the course with 3-5-2 until his “3 month mark” which players should comprise the starting XI alongside Di Maria?
Defenders: Di Maria’s arrival should not directly affect the fortunes of the defenders currently on staff. Barring the acquisition of Mats Hummels or Daley Blind, the back three should consist of Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, and Marcos Rojo. Evans’ starts solely on experience, and Jones because he just might be the lesser of two evils when measured against Chris Smalling. Rojo gets the nod, much like Evans, because of experience- he once played in a World Cup final, you know.
The left side wingback has to be Luke Shaw. Yes, he came into pre-season unfit, but couple his performances last season with his transfer fee and there is no way he does not start. Young though he is, his mantra must now be “sink or swim”. Antonio Valencia is the only feasible right back choice. Ashley Young continues too much like Ashley Young when it matters, and Van Gaal clearly does not favor Rafael or he would not have told him he was free to go one Saturday morning not too long ago.
The back six:
Jones – Evans – Rojo
Valencia – – – – – – – – – Shaw
Midfielders: Di Maria’s versatility offers many options in terms of formation and, more importantly, style. It is in midfield where Manchester United’s squad will truly feel the impact of his arrival.
Real Madrid played some of their most scintillating football when deployed in a 4-3-3, with Di Maria on the left of a central midfield that included Luka Modric and Xabi Alonso.
The 4-0 thrashing of Bayern Munich in last season’s Champion’s league semi-final serves as the perfect example of just how important Di Maria can be. His movement and vision were outstanding, as was the shift he put in defensively. Again, while that performance was part of a much larger whole, it is within a midfield three that Di Maria best serves Manchester United at present.
It is from midfield where the majority of Di Maria’s attributes are most likely to benefit the team. His energy offers a valuable outlet when United are looking to play out of trouble or, indeed, on the break. Di Maria was constantly part of breathtaking counterattacks at Real Madrid, and it should be no different at Manchester United, especially with a wingback offering defensive cover for the Argentine.
Make no mistake, part of me would love to see Di Maria used in the number ten role taken up by Arjen Robben for the Netherlands at the World Cup, but his quality does so much more for our midfield than for our attack.
Ander Herrera lines up alongside Di Maria, and Darren Fletcher sits just behind, covering the back three. Until Michael Carrick recovers from surgery, this is the best midfield three United have at the moment.
Herrera brings the creativity, Fletcher the tackle. Cleverley makes way for Herrera, and teenage sensation Adnan Januzaj steps aside for Di Maria. Some of these are tough decisions, but they must be made. Sir Alex Ferguson always maintained that no player was larger than the club, an idea made even more pertinent by the displays at the start of the season.
The midfield three:
Herrera- Fletcher- Di Maria
Forwards: Amidst all the rumours surrounding United’s transfer activity this summer, I came across the interesting view that there exists no rule that a player “must play”. Take, for example, Juan Mata. An excellent number ten when played behind a lone striker, Mata has the quality to be the best player in the Premier League. Alas, within Van Gaal’s system, Mata has to wait.
The two forwards should be Robin Van Persie, and current captain Wayne Rooney. When healthy, Van Persie provides class, quality, and goals. His captain, our captain, Wayne Rooney, provides all that and a touch of fight. This is Wayne Rooney’s team, and his smartly taken goal at the opening weekend proves that he is up to the task of leading by example. Mata, along with Kagawa, Welbeck, and Hernandez, must acquiesce.
The front two:
Rooney – Van Persie
Di Maria’s arrival does bring with it cause for celebration, but many, many questions remain. There are still a few days left in the transfer window, and Arturo Vidal, Nigel De Jong or another center back could still arrive. Until then, Louis Van Gaal must ensure that he gets the best out of Di Maria, Rooney, and Van Persie. They might just provide the impetus United have so severely lacked for the past year.