After a nervous opening to Sunday afternoon’s engagement at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light, Juan Mata was on hand to turn home Antonio Valencia’s driven cross to remind everybody of the match-changing quality Manchester United possess in attack. Minutes later Jack Rodwell would head an equaliser, rising unchallenged at a corner to expose the vulnerability at the heart of an unfamiliar defence in an unfamiliar system.
1-1 is how it remained for the next hour and Louis Van Gaal finds himself without a win in his opening two games as the second heir to Sir Alex Ferguson’s throne. It is ludicrously early to doubt his suitability but questions will justifiably arise over the 3-5-2 system that, in theory, is designed to produce the best form out of Mata in tandem with Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie. In practice however it left United fraught and disjointed, Van Gaal describing the draw as “not good enough”.
The conversation would then move on to Angel Di Maria, the current Real Madrid winger who is subject to United’s interest to the tune of £75 million. He will be signed by Van Gaal to play predominantly as a wing-back, an improvement on Valencia and Ashley Young who struggled on each flank as they stuttered to a draw in the north east. In the opening day defeat to Swansea, the injury to Jesse Lingaard forced Van Gaal into a rethink as Adnan Januzaj’s lack of defensive discipline saw a switch to a more conventional 4-4-2. Di Maria’s versatility and energy is likely to solve that issue.
Will Buckley gave both Ashley Young and Tyler Blackett a torrid time on the right on Sunday while Patrick Van Aanholt’s incursions from left-back troubled Valencia on the opposite side. Ahead of him, Connor Wickham was moved from his central-striking role to the left by Gus Poyet and his constant cutting-inside caused numerous problems for Phil Jones. Jones in particular looks uncertain on the right side of the defensive trio while Valencia, assist aside, was poor throughout and was culpable for Rodwell’s goal.
What would have alarmed Van Gaal was the speed of the build-up, with the central-midfield pairing of Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley slow and ponderous in possession, failing to offer any real incision and causing both Van Persie and Rooney to drop deeper, distorting United’s attacking verve. “Our passing let us down, we need more creative passing”, said Van Gaal.
Michael Carrick, pinpointed by the new manager as an integral asset to the new system, is watching his long-term injury absence have a huge effect whilst Ander Herrera was injured for the trip north. In Di Maria, Van Gaal would have a player able to play in central-midfield like he did impressively on occasion for Real Madrid, boasting tremendous vision as well as a nature for explosive runs from midfield. Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone named him as Real Madrid’s “best player” in the wake of the SuperCopa first leg last Tuesday, calling him “the most dominant player in pushing the play up the pitch.”
It does indeed seem a surprise that Real Madrid are allowing the 26 year old to leave, the attempt to balance the financial see-saw after a summer’s indulgence on Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez put strain on Madrid’s FFP situation does not excuse the quality that they will undoubtedly lose. After a turbulent search for form under Jose Mourinho, Di Maria blossomed under Ancelotti, featuring regularly and topping the La Liga assist chart with 17. He was also named Man of the Match as Real achieved a tenth European Cup in Lisbon back in May.
Naturally a right-winger, Di Maria will offer United a world-class option, should Van Gaal choose to ditch the 3-5-2 system that is experiencing intense growing pains, in an area they have been seriously lacking since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009. Valencia and Shinji Kagawa continue to struggle for form, Nani’s inconsistency has seen him packed off on loan to Sporting Lisbon and Adnan Januzaj remains an extremely raw talent, offering mere glimpses of considerable promise.
The move will attract the cynical view that Di Maria represents another marquee signing which can be seen as unnecessary, another instance of high-spend to serve the Glazer’s gratification in the face of growing dissent and unrest over the direction of the club. It will also reposition Manchester United’s ability to compete at the higher end of the market and ease the doubts over the nous of Ed Woodward, the chief executive who has so far found life difficult as chief negotiator.
The transfer, which will restore Manchester United as top-dogs of the English transfer scene, will please the shareholders and the plethora of partners the club are associated with, but it is on the pitch where United desperately need this move to work. Di Maria’s worth off the field will be huge, but it will be up to him, as well as Van Gaal as the search goes on for the right system, to ensure he is highly valuable on the field.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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