Ninety nine per cent of professional footballers will perform better when they have a sense that they fit in. Managers don’t need to shower them with affection or whisper sweet nothings into their ears each day; they just need to make their men feel wanted; in some way part of the plans.
Without that sense of belonging many players will become demoralized and lose interest. What’s the point in turning up if you’re just getting in the way?
Remarkably, after just one season, I get the impression £59.7million Angel Di Maria is experiencing that sense of rejection at Manchester United right now - and for the life of me I can’t understand why Louis van Gaal isn’t trying harder to keep him onside.
The Dutchman’s recent words have offered the Champions League winner next to no reassurance.
In early May when asked about the South American’s future he said, “The manager and the club is always dependable on the opinion of the player himself. The player decides, so we shall see what he decides. The decision is not only down to him because we have a contract, so we shall speak always with every player and evaluate, as I always do.”
Just a few days later when quizzed again, Van Gaal added, “The players have had to adapt to the philosophy and Di Maria has to do that. He can still do that, of course, because every player can but it’s important that he wants to do that in his head.”
And then this week (before the Argentinean has had a chance to prove he is willing to adapt in training) when asked if a deal with PSG was in the offing, all the United boss could offer was, “I cannot answer that. You can ask every time but it's a process, what I always say, and when we think we shall have to say something I shall say it."
These are not the mutterings of a manager that’s intent on making that player feel like he has a part to play. Before he has kicked a ball on tour, it sounds like a second chance may not be heading Di Maria’s way.
To me, that’s madness.
OK, he didn’t set the Premier League alight last season, and on occasion his body language failed to radiate fighting spirit. When the in form Ashley Young and Juan Mata were picked ahead of him late on in the campaign, they certainly warranted their places.
Yet nobody can persuade me that a happier, more settled and content Di Maria wouldn’t be one of Manchester United’s most effective players in the campaign ahead. He’s a top-class talent in his prime, an absolute gem.
Living in an unfamiliar city in a different country, and playing for a new team in the world’s most physically demanding league, is a difficult situation to adapt to. Ask Nemanja Vidic. Ask Robert Pires. Both had poor first seasons before turning things around to become club legends at Manchester United and Arsenal.
There are other extenuating circumstances to consider too. His young family suffered a terrifying burglary at their home earlier this year, the winger was constantly played out of position on the right wing, and United’s slow, stilted style of play rarely utilised his assets properly.
Van Gaal has a right to preach about philosophies and to demand that players follow his instructions, but he’d also be wrong to ignore those factors. Every personality is different, and should be handled accordingly.
Some will argue that Di Maria always wanted to move to PSG, and that he’s angling for that transfer a year later than originally hoped. I don’t know if that’s true or not.
What I do know, is that if Van Gaal and United tried to reassure him that he has a place in their plans, that he can be their star man, that his family will learn to love the area, their record signing would be far less inclined to leave. His footballing acclimatization would accelerate swiftly too, I’m sure.
Di Maria is a quality footballer worth hanging on to. In a bad season only Cesc Fabregas supplied more assists per 90 minutes than the Argentinean, who produced more goals for others than Player of the Year Eden Hazard, in less than half the time on the pitch.
If Van Gaal can afford to push a player of his class out of the door he must have a seriously good team on his hands this year.
Getting Di Maria to enjoy his football again has to be a better bet than selling him on. Doesn’t it?
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