Comment: Real Madrid winger Di Maria is just what struggling Manchester United need
It may be Manchester United's big bucks, and not divine intervention, that look set to take Angel di Maria from Real Madrid to Old Trafford but the Argentine wing wizard may be as close to the "miracle" that manager Louis Van Gaal has asked for to give his side any chance of winning the Premier League this season.
Di Maria will cost United a British transfer record fee far in excess of the £50 million that Fernando Torres cost Chelsea in 2011. There should be few fears of a similar style flop, however, with Madrid fans just as disappointed at his Bernabeu departure as United fans are pleased with his arrival to boost squad that has limped through the start of the Premier League season.
The 26-year-old, who said goodbye to his Madrid team-mates on Sunday ahead of an expected arrival at Old Trafford, may not be enough to push Van Gaal's squad to an unlikely title this season but his capture could well be the most crucial of the summer, alongside the signings of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa at Chelsea, as the most successful club of the Premier League era look to secure their place dining back at the top table.
In Di Maria, United are set to sign a player who outshone Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale on the biggest club stage of all last season.
The Argentina international took the man-of-the-match plaudits in the Champions League final and former United boss Sir Alex Ferguson may well have had a quiet word in the player's ear as he handed over the trophy in Lisbon in May.
Van Gaal will also have a player at his disposal who should help solve their lack of creativity, something highlighted in the 1-1 draw at Sunderland on Sunday and something the Dutchman is keen to address.
“Our passing let us down, we need more creative passing," he said after seeing his side collect their first point of the season. “You need creative passing in the last third but our balls were not so good. We were dominating without creating chances." Di Maria topped the assists chart in La Liga last season with 17 in just 27 starts and chipped in with four goals along the way. Another five assists came in nine Champions League matches as the midfielder played a big role in helping Los Blancos secure their long-awaited 'La Deicma'. Ronaldo and Bale bagged the goals but plenty of those were made possible by the creative vision of their teammate.
The Argentine will also add plenty of pace and energy to the United squad. Adnan Januzaj has pace in abundance but Van Gaal's squad is severely lacking elsewhere, especially following the departure of Nani on loan to Sporting Lisbon. Di Maria adds traditional old-school dribbling with jet-heeled pace complemented by an eye for a pass and an eye for an assist, not just head-down surging down the field to improve position. He is a player who can last the distance, too, with his energy and stamina a key part of his play. Di Maria will certainly be an exciting player to watch.
He also has plenty of grit and determination that should warm him to the United supporters. While these qualities alone are not sufficient for the club, when they are complemented by a variety of world-class attacking qualities they will make him an impressive addition. That grit and determination was showcased in his efforts not only to get a place in Madrid's first team following the arrival of Bale last summer, but to become a key component. While Mesut Ozil opted for a move to Arsenal to secure regular first-team action, Di Maria battled and forced boss Carlo Ancelotti to integrate him into his team.
Di Maria has played, and shone, at wing-back and as an outright winger for Benfica and hometown club Rosario Central but it was as part of a three-man midfield in that he really rose to the occasion with Los Blancos last season. A similar position at Old Trafford in Van Gaal's 3-5-2 system could be beneficial, much more so than using the player at wing-back, when he is restricted to sticking to the flanks. While his crosses, pace and dribbling qualities will cause plenty of full-backs problems, Di Maria has been more dangerous in the middle of the pitch.
He often took the game by the scruff of the neck for Madrid last season and to do that he needs to be central to all the play. An example was last season's El Clasico defeat against Barcelona, where Madrid were trailing to an early Andres Iniesta goal but Di Maria hauled his team back on to their feet and provided both assists for Karim Benzema to score and turn the game on its head. He did that centrally and that wasn't an exception.
It is not just hid attacking qualities that are set to benefit United, however. Di Maria's experience at playing at the back has meant he contributes defensively, too. He can play box-to-box and has the energy to do so from the first minute to the last such is his impressive engine. He can be creating an opportunity for his teammates one minute and then helping them at out at the back the next. This also makes him the perfect player in a counter-attacking team, breaking up the play at the back before surging forward to start a penetrating attack.
He is also not without his faults. Di Maria wants regular first-team football and if Van Gaal does not provide that, the player could soon become unhappy. He showed his discontent at being substituted in a Copa del Rey match against Olimpic de Xativa last season by refusing to shake Ancelotti's hand and storming down the tunnel as Madrid limped to a 0-0 draw against lower-division opposition. He also caused controversy by allegedly holding his crotch when hauled off against Celta Vigo in the league in January, a gesture he denied as being against the fans, some of whom jeered his departure, or his manager.
He is a player infamous with 'milking' a tackle, something he may get away with in Spain but something that will not go down well with supporters in the Premier League. He was not always loved at Madrid, but he made sure he was with his performances before he left.
The positives far outweigh those negatives. United may not only have a superb team player in their ranks, they will have a player who can lift others around him when things are not going to plan. His individual qualities mean he can quickly change the flow of the game in his side's favour and that's exactly what Van Gaal needs this season after collecting just a point from a possible six in his first two competitive fixtures.
A British record transfer fee could heap pressure on the player but he has already showed he can handle anything that is thrown at him. When he arrived at Portugal giants Benfica from Argentina, president Luís Filipe Vieira said he will be the perfect replacement for departing captain Simão, who secured legendary status during his five seasons in Lisbon. Undeterred, Di Maria proved him right with some star performances that quickly warmed him to the home support - and to Real Madrid.
United's expected gain will be Madrid's loss. Ancelotti said he "did not need" the player after Friday's Spanish Super Cup clash against Atletico Madrid but a 1-0 defeat at the Vicente Calderon proved otherwise. Los Blancos did not register a goal on Atleti's home soil for the first time in 20 years and and were defeated for the first time there since 1999. The European champions, despite boosting their squad with World Cup stars James, Toni Kroos and goalkeeper Keylor Navas, seemed to have gone backwards over the close season and it is no coincidence that has happened without the services of Di Maria.
Los Blancos may have creative stars aplenty in James, Kroos, Modric Ronaldo and Bale but they do not have the kind of work rate and box-to-box star such as Di Maria. Madrid are still the favourites to win La Liga for the first time in three seasons, and just the second time in six years, but the departure of Di Maria is a blow.
Now his star performances have attracted the interest of United and they are set to capture a player who is one of the hottest properties in world football. They are set to sign a midfielder who is entering what should be the best years of his career and a player who is keen to prove his doubters at Madrid wrong. Reports in Spain suggest Ancelotti wanted to keep the Argentine but president Florentino Perez wanted rid. Summer recruit James Rodriguez sells shirts and Di Maria, relatively doesn't. The fee may be huge but United are set to welcome a player who can play a key role in helping them back to the top.