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Aug 27, 2014

Have United overpaid for Di Maria?

ESPN FC's Shaka Hislop weighs in on Manchester United's embarrassing 4-0 loss at the hands of MK Dons.

The thinking goes something like this: if you buy this flotation device online, it costs you about 15 bucks. And you may or may not think it's worth $15 to have one of these.

But the simple fact of the matter is that if you were drowning in choppy waters and a guy on a helicopter above held one of these bad boys out and asked how much you'd be willing to pay for it, you'd probably say "I'll give you everything I have!" It's a textbook case of how value can depend on context. If you're desperate, you're willing to pay more for something because without it, the outcome is going to be disastrous.

This speaks to how buyers see value. But there are factors that affect how sellers price things as well. Go back to the drowning man. If, in our example, it's an average Joe with an average job and an average life, then "as much as it takes" will necessarily top out at a certain number. He can give everything he has but it will be a heck of a lot less than if the drowning man is Bill Gates, Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour.

These factors conspire in part to explain why Manchester United spent around 60 million pounds ($99m) -- plus, according to Spanish media, a series of performance-related add-ons which could be worth up to an additional 12 million pounds ($20m) to Real Madrid -- on acquiring Angel Di Maria.

Di Maria will make Man United better, but did they overspend to get him?

The narrative is simple. Manchester United may not quite be the drowning man, but they're in dire straits after missing out on the Champions League last season and beginning this campaign poorly. Therefore, Di Maria is worth more -- a lot more -- to them than he would be if they had enjoyed a top-four finish, like they did for much of the past two decades. Equally, because this is one of the most profitable clubs in the world and they readily leaked in May the fact that there was a 200 million-pound ($330m) war chest available to strengthen the team, they're the equivalent of the overboard billionaire.

MK Dons 4-0 Man United

- John Brewin: Van Gaal bullish despite defeat
- Iain Macintosh: A test of faith
- Musa Okwonga: United's problems laid bare
- Extra Time: The future of Man United
- FC TV Debate: Moyes vs. Van Gaal

Of course, if those are forces pushing Di Maria's transfer price up, then there are others pushing it down. Starting with the fact that, as I wrote Monday, he was available for $85m a month ago when Paris Saint-Germain said the price was too high for them. Plus the fact that Real Madrid themselves had an obvious interest in shifting an unhappy player so they could make up some of the James Rodriguez money and, possibly, bring in another forward.

These things matter because they serve as a reminder that football is an inefficient marketplace and any discussion of whether a club overpaid for a player needs to take these factors into account.

Di Maria is comfortably one of the 10 most expensive players of all time. Where he ranks on the list is debatable, because as ever, this is a fuzzy sport with little transparency. Clubs inflate or deflate fees, you don't know how much extra his add-ons are going to add up to and it's tough to account for, say, a guy like Neymar, whose fee was relatively low but whose acquisition -- as we discovered -- involved enormous payments to his dad.

Di Maria is 26 and has signed a five-year deal reportedly worth $16.5m (190,000 pounds a week) a year, though some put the figure higher, at $19.2m or 223,000 pounds per week). A look at the ages of the other players around him on that top-10 list at the time is telling. Some of the guys on the list were younger: Gareth Bale (24), Cristiano Ronaldo (24), James (23), Neymar (21). Some were older: Luis Suarez (27), Edinson Cavani (27), Zinedine Zidane (29), Kaka (27), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (31). I'll leave it up to you to decide which of the above delivered bang for buck; obviously the jury is still out on James and Suarez and, to a lesser degree, on Bale and Neymar. Or even how many of these guys are in the same bracket as Di Maria.

When it comes to misleading fees, we only need look as far as Neymar's move to Barcelona.

From United's perspective, there are a number of concerns over Di Maria. Much has been made about where he fits on the pitch, and my colleague Michael Cox ran through various permutations. He also, helpfully, gave a cogent assessment of Di Maria's strengths and characteristics as a player. Yes, he's versatile, but as Cox points out he has rarely been used as a traditional winger, whether at Benfica or at Real Madrid (even before last season, when Bale's arrival prompted Carlo Ancelotti to shift him to a more central position). In Portugal, he was often in a diamond, opposite Ramires. At Real under Mourinho, he was wide, but usually tucked inside as a counterweight to the marauding Ronaldo on the other flank.

That's why it's a bit curious that some keep comparing him to Arjen Robben, who is a far more attack-minded player, less tactically disciplined and less competent defensively. Then again, Louis van Gaal himself seems to be fueling the comparisons, with quotes like this:

In my mind, this is where you defer to Van Gaal and his judgment. He has obviously done his homework, he's had time to assess his squad, he knows his tactics -- he'll find a way to fit him in. He also isn't the type of guy to shirk from benching big names or shifting them around the pitch (read: Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata) if he deems it necessary. And performances will tell us whether he got it right. So in that sense, it's less of a concern.

Whatever role Di Maria plays, Van Gaal should be able to make it work just fine on the pitch.

A more legitimate question has to do with the size of the fee, simply in terms of opportunity cost. The "United can afford it" line only goes so far. Money, even when you're rich, is still a finite resource. Spending nearly $100m on Di Maria means you're not spending it on somebody else; the question is whether it could have been better spent elsewhere.

Then there's the physical weight of the fee. Every other player on the list has, at some point, carried his club and taken on a leadership role. Di Maria is simply untested in that department. Part of it, of course, is circumstance. When you play with Lionel Messi for Argentina and Ronaldo for Real Madrid, you're not going to be the main man. In fact, you're often more valuable if you defer unselfishly and let the other guy take the limelight. He's done that and proved himself an extremely valuable cog in a machine.

ALL-TIME HIGHEST TRANSFER FEES

1) £85m Gareth Bale -- Tottenham to Real Madrid, Sept. 2013

2) £80m Cristiano Ronaldo -- Man Utd to Real Madrid, June 2009

3) £75m Luis Suarez -- Liverpool to Barcelona, July 2014

4) £71m James Rodriguez -- Monaco to Real Madrid, July 2014

5) £59.7m Angel Di Maria -- Real Madrid to Man Utd, Aug. 2014

6) £56m Kaka -- AC Milan to Real Madrid, June 2009

But, at that fee, the expectations change (rightly or wrongly). He'll be expected to be the hub of United's wheel or close to it, particularly since right now there's something of a leadership vacuum on the pitch. Rooney has the captaincy and whether he's suited to the role has already prompted endless debate. Robin van Persie is 31, missed half of last season through injury and will be a year away from free agency in June. Darren Fletcher has struggled with injuries and illness since 2011 (18 league starts in three years tell their own story). Phil Jones could grow into the role, but he's not there yet. And sure, there could be other arrivals high on charisma and leadership qualities. But as it stands, expectations will be sky-high, and it remains to be seen how Di Maria negotiates the role.

Di Maria unquestionably makes United a better team. Right now, that's what seems to matter, and that's the message from Old Trafford. At some point, though, the issue of how much the club have invested in him and what could have been done differently in the transfer window will come home to roost. And that's when some folks will need to provide answers, both to the Glazers and to the supporters.

Gabriele Marcotti

A London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer, he is the author of three books, the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere dello Sport. You can catch him on ESPN FC TV and read him here twice a week.

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