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Richard Jolly profile picture Posted by Richard Jolly
Aug 29, 2014

How will Angel Di Maria fit into Louis van Gaal's Manchester United XI?

The ESPN FC crew discuss the British record signing of Angel Di Maria to Manchester United and debate the impact he will have with the Red Devils.

How do you solve a problem like Di Maria? Manchester United have paid a British record fee for Angel di Maria, yet the 59.7 million-pound signing does not really fit into their current 3-4-1-2 system. A winger joins a club who have dispensed with wingers.

- Marcotti: Have United overpaid for Di Maria?

However, Louis van Gaal described his most expensive arrival as a midfielder and a versatile player who gives his managers options, as he showed last season. "He can play inside or wide," the Dutchman said and, after Gareth Bale signed for Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti reinvented the Argentine as the left of three central midfielders. It was a job he did particularly effectively in the Champions League final win against Atletico Madrid, when he was named man of the match.

A scatter chart of Di Maria's touches then is interesting, partly because it resembles that of a left winger in a 4-4-2. He played like a winger in other respects, too: No one dribbled more often or delivered more crosses in the Lisbon final. That bodes well for United, who have too few players with pace in attacking areas and too few who run past defenders.

Real had a slightly lopsided formation, almost a hybrid of 4-3-3 and 4-4-2. Cristiano Ronaldo, ostensibly the left winger, was allowed the freedom to come infield (and, because he rarely tracks back, Di Maria did some of his defensive duties), whereas the other two central midfielders, Luka Modric and Sami Khedira, actually did play in the middle of the pitch, unlike Di Maria.

The other element of deploying Di Maria deeper is that he scored fewer goals in La Liga last season, as might be expected, but created more: 17, the most in the division. It is one more than Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj, Antonio Valencia, Shinji Kagawa, Danny Welbeck, Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher, Nani and Wilfried Zaha managed between them for United in the same period.

Scatter chart of Angel Di Maria's touches for Real Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final.
Scatter chart of Angel Di Maria's touches for Real Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final.

So how might he fit in at United? One possibility is to amend the current 3-4-1-2 to either 3-5-1-1 or 3-5-2, which would entail sacrificing one of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney or, most probably, Mata. Then Di Maria and Ander Herrera could flank an anchorman, presumably Carrick, and United's new signing could operate, as he had at Real, as a mixture of a central and left-sided player while Herrera, like his Real counterparts, ensures there is always a duo in the centre of the pitch.

It is worth remembering that Di Maria has not been used as part of a central midfield pair so suggestions that he and Herrera would operate as the two in the middle in the current shape seem unlikely. Moreover, as Herrera's touch map against Swansea shows, he is not an anchor midfielder (nor does he stray too near the right touchline, of which more later). Or, to make things simpler, Di Maria could just replace Mata in a straight swap. The former Real man might relish the more advanced role, but he has not operated quite as centrally before.

Before Bale's arrival, Di Maria was used as an inverted winger, a left-footer cutting in from the right. His two-goal performance in Real's 5-0 win over Valencia in January 2013 is an indication of his ability to operate on the right. He hugged the touchline in two-thirds of the pitch, but veered towards the penalty area, rather than the corner flag, to score twice.

United, of course, are not using wingers at the moment but Van Gaal said after the 4-0 defeat to MK Dons on Tuesday: "We shall see if with Di Maria we need to change the system or not." Van Gaal has selected wingers for much of his managerial career, either in 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 formations. Given United's current squad, 4-2-3-1 might make more sense but, while the South American could play on either side, the problem is that Mata would presumably have to operate on the other and all seven of the Spaniard's United goals have come when he has played as a No. 10.

Scatter chart of Angel Di Maria's touches for Real Madrid in their 5-0 win over Valencia in January 2013.
Scatter chart of Angel Di Maria's touches for Real Madrid in their 5-0 win over Valencia in January 2013.

Within a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 framework, Di Maria can play in a lot of positions. It gives a manager flexibility and Argentina's 1-0 win over Switzerland in the World Cup is a case in point. Di Maria, who eventually scored the winner, played as a left- and right-sided midfielder and a right winger as Alejandro Sabella changed formations. He also gave the ball away more than 50 times in various ways -- whether passes, crosses, shots or dribbles -- which show he is willing to risk possession in a bid to fashion a goal. He does not have the safety-first attitude of those who belong in deeper roles.

Scatter chart of Angel Di Maria's touches for Argentina against Switzerland at the World Cup.
Scatter chart of Angel Di Maria's touches for Argentina against Switzerland at the World Cup.

A further option is to use him as a wing-back, a role he sometimes played at Benfica. However that was in a weaker league and United already have discovered the difficulties of converting a winger into a wing-back, with Young struggling positionally in an unfamiliar role at times and opponents could emulate Swansea, who prospered by using out-and-out wingers (Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge) against a makeshift wing-back.

And Di Maria's statistics for the past four seasons, showing he made an average of 1.2 tackles, 0.9 interceptions and 0.1 clearances per game, indicate how different the duties of a wing-back would be. United have also signed two, in Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo, who can fill the role on the left.

But while Di Maria, as a winger or an attacking midfielder, can play in several positions, can he and Mata coexist? United's previous record signing has been at his most productive as a No. 10, either in 4-4-1-1 or 3-4-1-2 formation. His two-goal performance against Newcastle in April is typical. Like Di Maria, he can jink infield, though the former Chelsea man rarely goes as close to the touchline. If the newcomer were to start on the right, they may be in the same areas.

Scatter chart of Juan Mata's touches in Manchester United's 4-0 win over Newcastle in April.
Scatter chart of Juan Mata's touches in Manchester United's 4-0 win over Newcastle in April.

One final idea is a shape Van Gaal has rarely used, but his Liverpool counterpart Brendan Rodgers likes: a midfield diamond, in which Di Maria sometimes played for Benfica. It would allow Rooney and Van Persie to operate as strikers, with Mata as a No. 10 and Di Maria (left) and Herrera (right) on the sides, adding energy, while Carrick could be the anchor.

Yet that is an imperfect answer, too. It would be lopsided -- Di Maria offers far more width than Herrera can, or indeed should, because otherwise Carrick would be alone and exposed in the middle - and it threatens to take the British record signing too far from the opposition's goal. The various options mean it is especially intriguing to see where Van Gaal does pick Di Maria. The only obvious conclusion is that, having paid so much for him, he has earmarked the Argentine for a pivotal role.

Scatter chart of Ander Herrera's touches in Manchester United's 2-1 loss to Swansea this season.
Scatter chart of Ander Herrera's touches in Manchester United's 2-1 loss to Swansea this season.

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