robin van persie

How do you solve a problem like Di Maria?

First off, let me stress that the imminent signing of Real Madrid’s Angel di Maria by Manchester United is not a problem; this headline was just too tempting not to go with.

And B), the idea of this piece is to discuss the many ways that Louis van Gaal may look to fit the world class Argentine into his until now beleaguered and win-less United side.

The argument amongst football fans, of the Manchester United inclined mostly, has been how does this winger fit into a formation that doesn’t use proper wingers? We’re talking about van Gaal’s 3-5-2 formation here, the one that utilises two wing-backs, two central midfielders, and then a ‘number 10’ behind two main strikers. 

Therein lies the first problem, and it’s nothing to do with where di Maria fits in, it’s that most people don’t realise that di Maria’s best season at Real Madrid (last season) saw him play in central midfield beside Luka Modric and Xabi Alonso. Not unlike when Alex Ferguson shifted Ryan Giggs into central midfield after Paul Scholes’ career was threatened through an eye injury, Carlo Ancelotti moved Angel di Maria central and gave Real a lot more vigour and pace in central areas. This of course was Ancelotti’s answer to accommodating three wingers into the side in Ronaldo, di Maria and new signing Gareth Bale.

While Giggs ‘did a job’ for United there when necessary, di Maria made the position his own and was arguably Real Madrid’s second best player behind Cristiano Ronaldo in the last two seasons, and certainly last season. In the Champions League Final in Lisbon in May, when Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema didn’t show up, it was di Maria that took the game by the scruff of the neck, causing panic in the Atléti defence.

‘Versatility’ can be a dirty word in football these days, but di Maria’s Real tenure showed that the player didn’t just “do a job” in each position he occupied, á la an ageing Ryan Giggs, but he showed he was world class in each position, whether it be on the right wing, from the left, playing off the striker or playing deeper in a central midfield role.

At Manchester United, he will absolutely be occupying these same positions whenever necessary. 

Louis van Gaal, while utilising this 3-5-2 formation since the beginning of the World Cup, has always favoured 4-3-3 whenever he has the personnel at his disposal. At United, having so many capable strikers and few top class wingers, he has started the season with the former formation, though, as he suggested a month ago, he would use the latter formation should he have “a world class winger like Ronaldo or di Maria”.

Will he start di Maria wide right, with promising youngster and heir to Ryan Giggs’ iconic number 11 shirt, Adnan Januzaj, playing wide left? This would seem a very sensible option, but then what about the problem or picking Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie? Surely van Gaal must play both? Rooney, the player dividing opinion most amongst United fans, is now the club captain and dropping him would seem a surprising decision. Dropping van Persie? Not a chance. Not only is the flying Dutchman LVG’s pet but he’s Manchester United’s only true world class player, at least he was before Angel di Maria signed.

If a 4-3-3 is to be utilised, I can see van Gaal trying to use Wayne Rooney in a deep-lying attacking midfielder role just ahead of Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick or Darren Fletcher (assuming United don’t sign up Arturo Vidal or Nigel de Jong late in the window). But what about Juan Mata? Mata can’t be played on the wing, and can’t be played in a deep midfield role as some have suggested. His only position, unless his immense talents are to be wasted is behind the striker or ‘in the hole’, where Rooney could play also. It will end up being one or the other in terms of either Rooney or van Persie, or Rooney or Mata, should LVG decided to go 4-3-3.

formation

Possible 4-3-3 formation?

If van Gaal decides to stick with 3-5-2, and it’s highly likely given current personnel, especially in defensive positions, then I would think it comes down to di Maria and Mata vying for that key central position. Again, neither can play in the base two central midfield roles, and while di Maria played deeper at times for Real Madrid, he did so with two other world class central midfielders never far away to cover him. 

The ‘5’ in the 3-5-2 would most likely, at least in my mind, be Antonio Valencia, Ander Herrera, Darren Fletcher, Angel di Maria and Luke Shaw, with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie up front. Di Maria could also be utilised up front beside a front man in this formation, the way in which Arjen Robben did so effectively for Holland during the World Cup. 

formation2

Possible 3-5-2 formation with everyone fit.

And let’s be honest, the likelihood of Manchester United having the luxury of picking from Angel di Maria, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Adnan Januzaj all at once on a regular basis is slim. Before Sunday’s draw at Sunderland for instance, you had to go back to March for the last time Rooney and van Persie last started a game together. Just look at Manchester City’s current attacking options in Aguero, Jovetic, Negredo and Dzeko up front. It’s rare that they are always fit at the same time, but whenever City line up, they always look a threat because they have top class players replacing top class players. 

What happens often with van Gaal’s teams is he will freely change formations when one isn’t working and a player like di Maria is perfect for this. He can seamlessly switch from playing wide in a 4-3-3 to playing more centrally and being more of a creative influence in the 3-5-2 formation. You see, there is no problem. United need pace in attack. Badly. Januzaj is very good, but they need world class ability. Juan Mata is top class and keeps play moving but while his passing is quick his movement isn’t. Wayne Rooney rarely runs past people any more. The last player United had that could ‘make things happen’ like di Maria can was Cristiano Ronaldo. 

So as I said, there’s no “problem” here with the di Maria signing. He’s a player United need and simply could not afford to pass up, despite the British record transfer fee of £59.6 million (around €75 million). United certainly need more, especially in the centre of midfield, and that position may yet be filled with the rumoured arrival of Arturo Vidal, but for now, it’s okay to get excited. 

World Cup Brasil 2014 Half-way Point – Golden Boot Frontrunners

It is with such sweet sorrow that we bid adieu and obrigado to the most wonderful of World Cup group stages, at least in my time watching the tournament. We witnessed some of the most incredible goals you’re likely to see in a World Cup and in total, just the 139 goals were scored, a modern day record. But what has been the most amazing aspect of the tournament so far has been that almost every one of the so-called “big players” has delivered for their respective nations. So I’ve gone an compiled a list of some of the best of the World Cup so far.

 

Arjen Robben – Netherlands

The Bayern Munich man has probably been the most impressive player in the World Cup so far. His link-up play with with his Dutch compatriots Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and others like Danny Blind and Nigel de Jong has been outstanding. In three games, he has the best player in two of them, and in the game he wasn’t he still managed to score one of the finest goals in the tournament. He has notched three goals so far and assisted a few more too. At 30-years old he’s still clocking up speeds that are rivalling if not besting the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. It’s either the ‘Van Gaal Effect’ or it’s EPO. Either way it’s working.

Lionel Messi – Argentina

Coming into this tournament the best player of all time had a heap of pressure on his still quite young shoulders. This idiocy that he has to win the World Cup to be considered as good as, if not better, than Diego Maradona or Pelé has caused this. Argentina were most people’s favourites to win the tournament and while they haven’t been all that impressive in their three group games, they did win all three. But most importantly, Lionel Messi, captain fantastic, lead by example, winning the Man of the Match award in all three games and scoring four goals in the process. He’s the joint-leading goalscorer in the World Cup now after only scoring once in his previous two Copa Mundials. He’s getting better and you would have to fear for Switzerland in the Round of 16.

James Rodriguez – Colombia

“Hamez” Rodriguez, as the correct pronunciation of his name actually goes, is probably just behind Arjen Robben for me in the race for the Golden Boot. He has been the best player for the best team in the tournament so far in Colombia. Winning all three games, including trouncing Greece (3-0) and Japan (4-1), the young Monaco maestro has seen his stock rise drastically this June ensuring he is to be linked with any big team with one of those so-called ‘war chest’ transfer kitties. Rodriguez has scored three goals in three games so far, with one of them being one of the finest efforts of the tournament so far when dinked past the Japanese keeper in their final group game. A true world class star in the making and I fully expect another big performance when he and Colombia knock out Uruguay in the Round of 16.

Neymar – Brazil

Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney maybe have had unnecessary pressure on their shoulders, but none of those three have had it nearly as bad as young Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior. Simply put, anything but a Brazilian triumph on Brazilian soil is a disaster and the 22-year old is being tasked with more or less being the difference between failure and hysteria. Most 22-year olds would likely wilt under such pressure, but thankfully for not just Brazilians but those of us watching around the world, he has delivered. Boy has he delivered. In three games, Neymar Jr. has scored four goals and is the leading goal scorer in the tournament beside his idol and Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi. Brazil have motored along and look to be improving, but from minute one it is Neymar that has been their get out. He is a class act and I expect him to shine once again when Brazil beat Chile this Saturday. Dream scenario? Brazil versus Argentina in the World Cup Final. Neymar versus Messi for the Golden Boot and Golden Ball.

Robin van Persie – Netherlands

For me, the flying Dutchman has the goal of the tournament so far. That salmon-leap header from Danny Blind’s fantastic long-ball past a hapless Iker Casillas during the Netherlands’ 5-1 thrashing of Spain will linger long in the memory. He scored again in that game and then another – a typical RVP blast into the roof of the net – in their 3-2 win over Australia. Missing the Netherlands’ final group game against Chile, which the Dutch won 2-0, his absence was noted. Three goals in two games and his awesome partnership with Robben will ensure Mexico struggle to overcome van Gaal’s team in the Round of 16. I expect them to go through and van Persie to be right up there in the running for at least the Golden Boot.

Karim Benzema – France

France has been one of the surprise packages of the tournament so far. After a below-par qualifying campaign and not really doing anything of merit on the world stage since Zidane headbutted Materazzi in 2006, they came in with low expectations in terms of those of us looking in. What we’ve seen though is, at least in two of the games, and exciting France side brimming with talent that are actually gelling. Leading the line is Real Madrid’s oft-maligned Karim Benzema who has notched three goals in three games and been outstanding for Les Bleus. A second round match against Nigeria shouldn’t be too difficult to navigate but it’s the potential of a quarter final against Germany that could see them come unstuck. Benzema probably won’t end up with either the Golden Boot or Ball but he has been the star in a resurgent France side that were disgraced at the last World Cup.

Alexis Sanchez – Chile

Barcelona look likely to lose this little genius this Summer but whoever gets him signed up will be getting a legitimate star. Lost in the chasm of Barcelona’s dearth of talent, he has flourished in a Chile side that is centred around Arturo Vidal, Eduardo Vargas and himself. He’s exciting to watch and is at the heart of everything great about this class Chilean side. A big test comes next for him in the shape of Brazil’s defensive partnership of Thiago Silva and David Luiz and a Brazil side Chile haven’t fared well against in the recent past. They were knocked out of the World Cup in this exact fixture four years ago in South Africa. If they can navigate Brazil it sets up a game against Colombia most likely in the quarter finals and then either Germany or France in the semis. And then, who knows? Big problem facing Chile is that Eamon Dunphy has tipped them to win it all. So for that, I’m going with Brazil to knock them out. But in the meanwhile, let’s enjoy Sanchez, the best Alexis since Ms. Texas.