Angel di Maria's reputation has taken a battering but it is Manchester United who are the biggest losers
As a football investment, there is no hiding place for the club, player or manager Louis van Gaal - the Argentine's signing was an unmitigated disaster
Published 03/08/2015 | 22:02
There was a certain irony in Angel di Maria’s decision not to board a flight from Buenos Aires to San Francisco in order to join up with the Manchester United squad in the United States 10 days ago.
As one member of the touring party remarked, it was the first time the Argentine winger had not been a passenger for months.
A harsh assessment, perhaps, of British football’s £59.7m record signing, but when Di Maria finally completes his €63m (£44.3m) move from United to Paris Saint-Germain, there will be few arguing the case for his defence at Old Trafford, either inside or outside the dressing-room.
Twelve months after arriving at United as the first ‘galactico’ signing of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era - on his unveiling, Di Maria spoke of his pride at being handed the No 7 shirt once worn by Cantona, Beckham and Ronaldo - the only numbers which illustrate the 27-year-old’s disastrous spell at the club are more in keeping with the Greek debt crisis than glorious moments on the pitch.
With his fee and wages totalling £70.7m, PSG’s surprisingly large payment for the former Real Madrid player still leaves Di Maria’s total cost to United at £26.4m.
His four goals came at a cost of £6.6m each, with 32 first-team appearances breaking down at £825,000-per-game.
The amortisation of Di Maria’s contract and devaluation of the Euro since last August, which will play in United’s favour when making the outstanding payment on his fee to Real, will soften the financial blow for United’s accountants, but as a football investment, there is no hiding place for the club, player or manager Louis van Gaal.
A signing which happened quickly, without the usual detailed assessment of the player’s suitability for English football or his readiness to adapt to living in a non-Latin environment, now looks like a deal which was rushed because the headline-grabbing stardust obscured the bigger picture.
But where, and how, did it all go wrong for a player who arrived at Old Trafford having produced a man of the match performance for Real in the Champions League final just three months earlier?
Di Maria’s farewell letter to the Real supporters, within 48 hours of his arrival at United, in which he insisted that he did not want to leave the club, hinted at a player looking back with regret rather than forward with anticipation, but his start at Old Trafford, when he scored three goals in his first four games, suggested he had made an instant adjustment to life in Manchester.
But the end, perhaps, began as early as late-November, when a hamstring injury suffered just 14 minutes into a home game against Hull triggered the downward spiral which ultimately sees him heading for Paris.
From that point on, Di Maria’s fitness and confidence appeared fragile, with Van Gaal’s tinkering stretching to the deployment of his flying winger as a centre-forward - an experiment which failed.
More injuries followed, then came the burglary at Di Maria’s Cheshire mansion in January which unnerved and unsettled the player and his family to the extent that his wife sought a return to Madrid as quickly as possible.
United offered the Di Marias greater, more visible, security and the family moved to a city centre apartment, but a cold and miserable Mancunian winter gnawed away at his wife at the same time as the player’s relationship with Van Gaal deteriorated - an issue exacerbated by the Dutchman’s blunt assessment of his record signing.
“The players have had to adapt to the philosophy and Di Maria has to do that,” Van Gaal said. “He can still do that, of course, because every player can.
“But it’s important that he wants to do that in his head. When you are open for coaching, then you can change.”
There was no Ferguson-style protection, no public show of support, and Van Gaal’s concerns over Di Maria’s willingness to embrace his methods were amplified by the player’s limited enthusiasm to learn English.
The Argentine’s team-mates also noted his preference to isolate himself with compatriot Marcos Rojo rather than throw himself into integrating with a multi-national squad.
The general sense of Di Maria not wanting to be at the club was shared by many at Old Trafford, with some becoming exasperated by the focus on the burglary incident due to the lengths United had gone since that episode to reassure the player and his family.
Di Maria’s discomfort was borne out on the pitch, with a red card for his uncharacteristic man-handling of referee Michael Oliver during an FA Cup defeat against Arsenal highlighting his frustrations and the child-like catching of the ball while it was in play at Anfield betraying the player’s bewilderment and anxiety.
When he limped out of the final game of the season at Hull - 10 weeks after his most recent start - clutching his hamstring with just 23 minutes on the clock, Di Maria resembled a schoolboy who had had enough of being kicked by the bigger players on the opposite side.
Van Gaal went on to describe the injury as ‘minor’ in another unforgiving, almost dismissive, aside about the player.
By that stage, Di Maria’s mind had been made up, with discreet enquiries from Manchester City being returned with information that Madrid or Paris, rather than Manchester, would be his next place of work.
But as the United story comes to a close, it has not ended well for any of those involved.
Di Maria’s reputation has taken a battering, as has Van Gaal’s in terms of handling star players, but it is United who are the biggest losers.