Manchester United signaled their intent to remain amongst the European elite with the British record transfer capture of Real Madrid winger Angel Di Maria. The talented Argentinean completed a move just shy of £60m to the Old Trafford club earlier this week.
For United fans, his arrival could not have come at a more opportune time. Two games into the season, they have picked up just one point from two Premier League games, at home to Swansea and away at Sunderland, hardly the most formidable of opponents they are likely to face this season in the English top flight.
Compounding that was the midweek Capital One Cup debacle at MK Dons where Karl Robinson’s bullish young team thumped a Manchester United team made up chiefly of youngsters plus players Louis van Gaal clearly wants out at the club, 4-0 in what was not just a humiliating defeat but could have actually been much worse.
Pundits like Sky Sports Gary Neville have hailed Di Maria’s signing as a key moment for United, pointing out that United lacked pace in wide areas and that will be a vital asset to the club going forward.
But does that stand up to scrutiny? Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Nani were not exactly slouches, but it is fair to say that none offer the potential quality of a player like Di Maria.
Indeed, I would argue that Di Maria’s pace is not his key asset. His movement with the ball, an eye for a pass and willingness to get forward into advanced positions to create chances for opponents, or score himself are all far greater assets to his game than his pace.
It is fair to say that Di Maria will go straight into the team at Old Trafford; no player this season has done enough to keep their place in the team and United face a tricky trip to Lancashire rivals Burnley at the weekend.
They’ll need Di Maria’s quality against a Burnley side which may be limited, but won’t be lacking for effort or inspiration.
United have also been strongly linked with a £38m deal for Juventus star Arturo Vidal, another attacking midfielder, with reports that the player and United had agreed personal terms but that United were yet to agree a fee with his club Juventus.
If Vidal arrives too, then United will certainly have snapped up two of the best attacking midfielders in world football.
The question is, are they the players that Manchester United need at the moment?
Certainly Di Maria will add something to the United attack and if Vidal signs, then he too would certainly bring something additional to the table. But the question remains, how do you fit all these players into place at the club?
Many pundits have pointed out that Di Maria’s signing may well stunt the development of Adnan Januzaj at the club. Januzaj was widely touted as the next big thing at United. Is he likely to play in place of a £60m club and British record signing?
It was telling that Januzaj, along with Anderson, Hernandez and Welbeck – all of whom have been told they can leave the club – were amongst the most famous faces playing in United’s 4-0 thumping defeat to MK Dons in midweek.
There is also the question of how Di Maria and possibly Vidal will fit into Louis Van Gaal’s grand scheme. If we accept that Van Persie will be his striker, with Rooney playing in behind, or alongside, then that leaves Di Maria, Vidal, Herrera, Young, Valencia, Cleverley, Fletcher, Carrick, Januzaj, Mata and Fellaini all vying for four places in the team. If we accept that Di Maria will play on the left flank, Vidal centrally, that means that Mata will be played out wide once again, where stats show he is relatively ineffective compared to when he plays a central role.
Of course, an over-abundance of riches in attack isn’t a negative problem, but what most certainly is at United and what is perhaps most worrying for United fans, is that van Gaal has not moved to bring in any player that would add a semblance of defensive stability to the club.
In all United’s performances so far this season, Swansea, Sunderland and MK Dons have looked likely to score with almost every attack on the United defence. United are conceding at a rate of greater than two goals per game at the moment. That is relegation form.
Yet van Gaal’s two major signings this summer in defensive terms, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw, are both left backs.
No players have been signed to replace Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic and the Dutchman persists playing either Chris Smalling or Phil Jones as a right back. Other players such as Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane have also been tried, while Jonny Evans came back against MK Dons in the week but put in a performance which is likely to make him wish he hadn’t.
The net result is a Manchester United defence that is totally ill-equipped to play to the Louis van Gaal philosophy of possession football. They have tried it in all their games this season and have been found out, time and time again.
The solution is simple; either Louis van Gaal has to adopt his philosophy and play to his players strengths, which is never going to happen, or he will have to buy players who can play the way he wants and who offer United a crumb of defensive stability.
What is clear is that while United continue to ship goals, no matter how much you spend on attackers, you can’t keep scoring enough goals at the other end of the field to cover up defensive lapses. Eventually, even the very best at doing this get found out. Just ask Spain and Barcelona fans after their sides experiences in the past two years.
So United fans should rejoice in the arrival of the Angel, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he is the answer to their prayers.