Even Louis van Gaal – all cocksureness and bluster – would have had doubts in his mind for a second or two.
The Dutchman would have sat across from Ed Woodward and other assorted men in Manchester United club blazers and pondered the challenge. After United’s worst season since they came a barely fathomable 13th in 1989/90 – the year Michael Knighton was on the pitch doing keepie-uppies in his short shorts – could the Dutchman really raise supporters’ morale from the floor?
It’s probably his last job in football. There would surely be other, easier, potentially more lucrative positions available for him. Did he need this? Did he want this? Then a smile would have spread across those famous features. Of course he wanted this.
And so Van Gaal set about trying to raise United from their Moyesian malaise, and from seventh into the top four and back into the Champions League.
To do that, he was afforded the kind of riches which would make Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour blush. Expensive additions were demanded, recruited and celebrated. These were the men to shoot United back into the elite, apparently.
And none was welcomed with wider arms and broader grins than Angel Di Maria, the man of the match in the Champions League final played just three months previously.
Di Maria – who became the most expensive player ever signed by an English club when £59.7m was added to Real Madrid’s bank account – was supposed to be the man to lead United’s charge back up the table, laying on goals for the other celebrated fresh face, Radamel Falcao.
And for a brief period he did do that (for others, not Falcao).
If you want to look at the numbers, over last season as a whole only Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla registered more assists than Di Maria, but whilst there seems to be a growing army of football fans who only judge the game on such things, in this instance stats really don’t tell the story.
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This was a tale of Van Gaal looking to do the basics right as he sought to get United above an imploding Liverpool, an unconvincing Tottenham and a Southampton side who were punching above their weight. To do that he would need players to play the percentages.
If Marouane Fellaini gets in the box a lot, his physicality means he’s going to win the ball close to goal, either scoring himself or creating a chance for a teammate. If Ashley Young sends in cross after cross, the odds are he’ll eventually produce a good one. If Ander Herrera keeps getting into the clever positions he’s capable of, the chances are he’ll score.
Even if they weren’t on top of their game, United kept playing these percentages and plugging away to the point that when they really hit good form in mid-March and dispatched Tottenham, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City in a four-game run, they looked unstoppable.
Di Maria watched most of those matches from the naughty step after a bizarre red card in the FA Cup against Arsenal after diving and then grabbing referee Michael Oliver’s shirt in protest at his initial yellow card.
Here was a player who wasn’t playing the percentages that Van Gaal needed. He was often on the periphery of things, and with Juan Mata – another player sometimes accused of spending too long on the fringes – proving very effective at times then there wasn’t really a place for the Argentinean.
We all know about the injuries and the off-field issues centring on Di Maria’s failure to settle in Manchester, and the horrific break-in at his home in mid-January, but more than anything else it was his failure to fit into this percentages philosophy which did for him at United.
There is every reason to believe that he would have flourished in a team whose place at the top of the English game was already established – any of Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides or perhaps one in Van Gaal’s seasons to come – but he simply couldn’t be indulged in 2014/15.
A profound misery seemed to take over his career in English football very quickly and suddenly there was no way back.
And now as Di Maria stands on the verge of a move to Paris Saint-Germain, the only doubts in Van Gaal’s mind will be why he even signed him in the first place.
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