Thursday 27 June 2019

Gary Neville: How do you solve a problem like Di Maria?

Messy divorce from Madrid and the shock of burglary have made £60m man a shadow of his former self

Angel Di Maria has endured a difficult first season at Manchester United
Angel Di Maria has endured a difficult first season at Manchester United

GARY NEVILLE

When Ron Atkinson signed Bryan Robson for Manchester United in 1981, he compared him to "solid gold", and that was exactly the reaction I had when Angel di Maria arrived at Old Trafford last August.

It was a signing that truly excited me. I had seen Di Maria play for Real Madrid, watched as he was their best player in the Champions League final last May, and saw him as the addition to the United squad who would deliver the pace, impetus and the ability to change the speed of a game - all of which had been lacking last season.

The players brought to the club by David Moyes - Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata - had their attributes, but neither was quick or likely to encourage an expansive game and, although Mata can dribble, it is usually only in small spaces.

I had doubts as to whether they were United players, but I had absolutely no doubts about Di Maria. I fully expected Di Maria and Luke Shaw to form a devastating partnership down the left flank and, even at close to £60m, I had no thoughts whatsoever that his signing was a risk.

Light

I just believed he would come into the team and light the place up.

Seven months on, that has not happened and it seems a long time since I was sat in a Sky Sports truck at the Etihad Stadium last September watching Di Maria produce what was, for me, the best moment of the season from a United perspective.

When he dribbled down the wing at the King Power Stadium before chipping Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel to score his second goal in three games since arriving from Madrid, the United fan in me was so excited and I was thinking, "Here we go!"

It was an example of everything I expected Di Maria to bring to the Premier League - pace, audacity and a moment of magic capable of turning a game.

But since that day, Di Maria has scored just two more goals - one of them coming against Yeovil in the FA Cup - and he has quite simply looked a shadow of his former self.

Over the past week, I have seen him hooked off at half-time by Louis van Gaal against Sunderland, then taken off after less than an hour at Newcastle in midweek, when he didn't look happy to be coming off.

From the goal at Leicester to being taken off twice in a week, I have been trying to work out why Di Maria's season has now reached the stage where he is low on confidence and not delivering what everyone expects him to produce.

There are reasons and there are excuses and it is a case of sifting through them to identify the genuine mitigating factors that have left us questioning his performances since arriving as the most expensive player in British football history.

Unquestionably, the burglary of Di Maria's house at the end of January will have affected him. He is in a new environment, does not have a particularly good grasp of English and he and his family have been unnerved by a break-in which has left him looking for somewhere else to live.

No matter what your profession or where you live, you cannot overstate the psychological impact of having your home breached by an intruder.

There is also the fact that, within days of signing for United, Di Maria released a letter to Real Madrid supporters insisting it was never his wish to leave the Bernabeu.

Having grown up in and around Manchester as a United supporter, it is easy to regard the club as the biggest in the world, but we have to accept that playing for Real or Barcelona is probably the fantasy of every footballer from South America, and Di Maria has moved to England after being told he was not wanted at his dream club.

So he has come to United when he did not want to leave Madrid, has suffered the trauma of a burglary, and started to work for a new manager while playing in a team that is still in a 'storm' phase of development.

All of those are factors that would go some way to explaining why Di Maria has struggled after his bright start, but I feel as though I have a parrot on either shoulder, with one telling me to give him the benefit of the doubt because of those reasons while the other is saying that, actually, the time has come for a £60m player to deliver.

What I won't fall for are the reasons some are giving, which I would call excuses, such as injuries - Di Maria has been out with hamstring and pelvic problems - the fatigue factor from playing in the World Cup and the inexplicably poor record of South American players at United.

Di Maria cannot point to any of the above, though, because every player can suffer from injuries, a large percentage of Premier League players performed in the World Cup - Alexis Sanchez hasn't done too badly for Arsenal this season.

And for every supporter who cites Juan Sebastian Veron, Carlos Tevez, Gabriel Heinze, Diego Forlan, Anderson and Kleberson as evidence that South Americans struggle in Manchester, I can point to Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta at Manchester City as proof that they succeed, too.

But in attempting to pinpoint why Di Maria has struggled to deliver at United, I think you must also look at Mesut Ozil at Arsenal. Just like Di Maria, Ozil was pushed out of Madrid and he has since struggled to be the game-changer that I believe a £42m player should be for Arsenal.

Although Arsenal fans often complain when I highlight Ozil's shortcomings, my response is that I generally see him in the bigger games against the top opponents and he has not delivered.

not enough

In 22 games against Chelsea, United, City, Liverpool and Tottenham, plus Champions League appearances, he has scored just two goals.

It is not enough for a player of Ozil's ability, he does not influence games as he should, but maybe Arsenal and United fans need to accept that it will take longer for the German and Di Maria to come good.

For me, it is as though leaving Real Madrid has been like a bad divorce for the pair of them - a messy end to a relationship that will take maybe 18 months to two years to overcome.

So while it would be easy to say that Di Maria must now start playing, stop sulking and get on with justifying his price tag, you cannot ignore the effect that leaving Madrid has had on him - a psychological low which must have been exacerbated by the burglary.

But one thing for certain is that United now need his focus to be on getting back to his best for what will be a crucial period for the club, starting with the FA Cup tie against Arsenal on Monday.

If United are to achieve their aims this season, primarily Champions League qualification, Di Maria is going to have to rid himself of the complexities that have emerged over the past eight months and escape the demons that are playing on his mind. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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