Whatever happens at Burnley today, I think we know now that there will be an overreaction to it. If United fall at Turf Moor, the factions who enjoy picking apart a foreign manager will take another swing at Louis Van Gaal, and if the Dutchman finally snags three points the ‘renaissance’ narrative will flare-up again. One way or another, it’s probably going to be a bit tedious.
But there is some intrigue here, because today we’ll finally see Angel Di Maria’s introductions to English football and we’ll be able to start answering the myriad questions posed by his transfer.
Here’s a projected United line-up:
Angel Di Maria doesn’t really fit into this formation. Yes, he spent the majority of last season playing a similar role for Real Madrid, but please don’t tell me that the requirements of a La Liga and Premier League midfielder are the same - they’re not, the physical and tactical demands are completely different. Di Maria is technically gifted enough to be prominent in any position, but a midfield-three of Juan Mata, Darren Fletcher, and the Argentine feels recklessly unbalanced - and that’s especially relevant in a competition in which the the nature of the play is notoriously back-and-forth.
Forget the physical differences between Spanish and English football temporarily, and remember the Madrid midfield that Di Maria played in: typically, he was the most advanced member of a unit containing Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric or, in the Champions League final, Modric and Sami Khedira. In other words, alongside two players who were happy to defer the attacking responsibilities to him and who provided a level of defensive stability that United just don’t have. Do Fletcher, Mata and Di Maria equal Alonso, Modric and Di Maria? In ability terms, obviously not, but more significantly the chemistry within that latter trio is significantly inferior.
United can come close to replicating Di Maria’s Madrid conditions and once Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick are fit there will be a more favourable balance in that part of the pitch, but then what happens to Juan Mata? Without a formation change, United are potentially facing a situation in which they have to sacrifice a £40m signing to accommodate a new £60m player.
Maybe this will work and maybe Louis Van Gaal is an astute enough football mind to tactically bury this problem, but don’t just assume that because Angel Di Maria played one role in Spain he can effortlessly drop into the same position in England - think about the variables involved and assume that there will at least be a period of trial and error.
Di Maria makes United theoretically better and also infinitely more dynamic from midfield, but Van Gaal has to find a way of accommodating him without compromising the overall structure of his side.