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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. 

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