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Manchester United’s spending spree last summer turned quite a few heads. Out of their acquisitions, a certain Angel Di Maria stood out as he came to England on the back of a successful season with Real Madrid and a memorable World Cup campaign. However, he didn’t set the world alight in his season. Luke Duffy defends the Argentine International and predicts that there’s more to come next season.

Manchester United’s Angel Di Maria appears to have moved quickly to stop any talk of a potential move away from the club, declaring that he will stay with the team he only joined last summer. While some fans have expressed only mild satisfaction at the news, there is no doubt his first season in English football was a slog for him at times.

Like so many great foreign players that initially struggled in the Premier League before going on to great things though, will Di Maria bounce back in a big way next year? More than that, could he actually be the key to United staging another assault on the domestic title?

Di Maria

Before exploring just how and why Di Maria faltered so much in his first campaign, we need to address a sweeping opinion that at some point last year became the accepted norm. Although far from the player who was the man of the match on the night Real Madrid captured La Decima in 2014, the Argentinian was not that bad either.

Although he did only manage 3 goals in his 27 appearances in the league for the club, he did actually hit the ground running initially. Those first few weeks of the season saw some inventive runs, clever passes and all round general high IQ play for his new club. In fact, in 3 of his first 4 games for the club in the league (against QPR, Leicester and Everton) he provided one goal and one assist. That’s hardly starting slowly.

Given that relatively quick start, just his presence on the pitch made opponents wary of giving him any time to make something happen on the ball. This opened up space for the likes of the suddenly rejuvenated Ashley Young and others to operate with more freedom than they would have been used to, something which cannot be underestimated.

His performances did dip, but the beginning of December saw his consistency broken up as a result of a hamstring injury. A combination of this injury, lack of match fitness and being left out of the squad altogether meant he only laced up his boots once over the busy Christmas period: away to Aston Villa in what was a 29 minute cameo. The next time he was seen again was January 11th, nearly a full month and six games later.

By then United had begun to find their stride having initially struggled, and it almost felt like Di Maria was playing catch up with his own teammates. New faces like Daley Blind had started to really get to grips with the English game. Radamel Falcao aside most of the other new boys were starting to fit into Van Gaal’s system, which only served to make matters worse for the 27 year old.

Consider this, the attacker did not complete an entire 90 minute match for the team in the league going back as far as 21st February. That’s a 10 game stretch, while a further 2 games were missed and a third he didn’t feature at all off the bench. Add those to the 6 games missed in the Christmas period and that’s half a season of false starts. How can you hope to get the most out of a player who cost a record £59.7 million under conditions like that?

Looking back over recent seasons however, there is reason to believe Di Maria will be a much more effective player for United next season. He needs only to look at his former teammate at Madrid, Mesut Ozil, to know that his fortunes can quickly turn around in this league. Although Ozil himself still has some people to win over, there is no doubt he has produced vastly improved performances as compared to his first season at the Gunners.

Like Di Maria, the German struggled initially with the pace of the league, and was substituted regularly as well. His nonchalant displays infuriated certain fans, and that approach to the game is something Di Maria doesn’t possess himself. Even when he’s playing badly, it does at least appear as if he’s trying.

A look at some numbers only makes things look better for United’s struggling star. In Ozil’s first season in England, he too was not as bad as many people made him out to be, just like Di Maria. Although different kinds of players, they both possess similarities in being attacking hubs for their respective teams.

Di Maria vs Ozil

Di Maria’s first season vs Ozil’s first season. Image courtesy Squawka’s excellent Comparison Matrix

As you can see, Di Maria actually had more of an influence in several key areas than Ozil did in his first season, while also being a much better defensive presence for his new club. You may think defending isn’t important as it is not what these guys are on the pitch to do. But United’s system predominantly features two full-backs who bomb forward, so having cover from different areas is key.

Again this is an example of Di Maria’s work off the ball going unnoticed (His defensive rating was also higher than the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Philippe Coutinho, worth noting). Unsurprisingly he didn’t create chances at the same rate as Ozil, but that is to be expected. He wasn’t afraid to shoot the ball however, even if the goals dried up very quickly for him. He also averaged more shots per game than the artistic David Silva.

So maybe he should have scored more, but just getting himself in those positions to do so was encouraging in itself. Across every major statistical category related to passing i.e. completed passes, key passes, and assists, United ranked fourth. With a fully fit and acclimatised Di Maria next season, it would be a relatively safe bet to see their position rise closer to the top in that category. That’s the kind of influence Di Maria has, and it will continue to grow the longer he is with the club.

So while his intentions to remain with the club have gone under the radar by those fans baying for manager Louis van Gaal to spend big on new additions, simply having a Di Maria firing on all cylinders may alter their fortunes greatly next year. From the statistics provided, we can see he had a rough stretch in the middle of the season that really did him no good.

Those same numbers also tell us not to panic however, as he already appears to have found out how to be at his best in this league. Others may still fancy Sanchez and Eden Hazard over Di Maria, but the fact is, he is not too far behind them in terms of productivity or talent. He wasn’t even that far behind to begin with.

Written by Luke Duffy

Luke Duffy

Luke is a freelance writer of both football and the NBA. An Arsenal fan in a family of Manchester United supporters, he has contributed to websites such as WeAreHooligans, Pundit Arena and Hoopshabit regularly. By day he is the social media manager for Inpho photography in Dublin, Ireland.
Luke Duffy

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