From Real Madrid marauder to PSG bench-sitter, Angel Di Maria decline has been slow and steady. Peter Coates asks if the rot can be stopped for the Argentine ace
The ostrich is said to be able to maintain speeds of 30-miles-per-hour for distances of more than 20 miles and it is this combination of pace and stamina that has for so long been the hallmark of Argentina’s Angel Di Maria.
However, just like his animal equivalent, all too often El Fideo’s head seems stuck in the ground and with the high-profile arrival of Julian Draxler at Paris Saint-Germain, Di Maria’s future at both club level and internationally is uncertain.
After a highly successful first season in Paris which yielded a league and cup double with a new Ligue 1 assist record to boot, Di Maria’s form has dramatically slumped this season and PSG find themselves in the unfamiliar position of playing catch-up in the title race.
While Laurent Blanc’s Paris Saint-Germain swept to the title with Di Maria scoring ten goals and notching 18 assists, Unai Emery’s new look side have at times struggled and no one has personified this more than the Argentinian. With frustration mounting and a meagre one goal and five assists at the half way point of the season, PSG’s wealthy backers opted to dip once more into their reserves and parted with what could rise to $50 million for 23-year-old German forward, Julian Draxler.
If the mere arrival of the German international wasn’t pressure enough for Di Maria, then his goal scoring debut and seamless incorporation to Emery’s side have only served to further threaten El Fideo’s position at the club.
Having to make do with a place on the bench for PSG’s last two league victories, there is no guarantee that Di Maria will regain his spot for the Champions League even with Draxler out injured after Emery hinted that youngster Christopher Nkunku could get a chance.
The signing of Draxler and the possibility of utilizing more youthful options suggest PSG are already preparing for the future amid signs of Di Maria’s decline.
Emery’s words of encouragement to the Argentinian over the winter break were equally cautionary in their tone: “He is a very experienced player and a very important one, whose performance has been good, while we all think and hope he’ll get even better. I’m sure that will happen in the second half of the season.”
— Jonathan Johnson (@Jon_LeGossip) January 23, 2017
Unfortunately for Di Maria, 2017 did initially bring signs of improvement but Draxler’s form may limit further opportunities.
It seems quite a long time ago since Di Maria shone under Carlo Ancelotti as Real Madrid lifted the Champions League and Manchester United subsequently paid a then British transfer record to bring the player to Old Trafford. However, the concern is that a recent dip in form is in fact a signal of a far wider decline and an inability to make a consistent contribution to an attack.
In Ancelotti’s Madrid side and Alejandro Sabella’s Argentina, Di Maria produced perhaps some of his best football and interestingly both coaches dropped El Fideo deeper into a more centralised role.
This tactical role change allowed both sides to benefit from Di Maria’s key attributes and it has been since then when the 28-year-old has been forced to play in teams who enjoy greater possession against deep opposition defences that his decision making and incisiveness have been called into question.
Current Argentina manager Edgardo Bauza, like his predecessor Gerardo Martino have undoubtedly not got as much from Di Maria as Sabella did in qualification for the 2014 World Cup. In his more advanced position, on the left of a front three, there have been some good performances but these are perhaps outweighed by frustratingly wasteful displays.
“I’ve known him since he was 13-years-old. There is no other player with the qualities that he has,” Bauza recently explained when quizzed over Di Maria’s recent level.
“What is happening with Di Maria is he is very anxious, he knows this and is trying to solve it and we are trying to calm him. We have several players to play on the left wing, but he is the only one who can run the whole pitch.
“There is no end to his physical attributes even if we play [at altitude] in La Paz, Di Maria will run the same as anywhere else.”
This has already proven demonstrably true for Argentina but again highlights attributes that top tier teams are not necessarily looking for from a left-sided attacker.
Bauza remains a fan and so at least for now, Di Maria’s position in the national team looks safe despite increasing cries for change but Paris Saint-Germain’s decision to already seek alternatives may be the beginning of the end.
With Carlos Tevez swapping Boca Juniors for the Chinese Super League this January, Di Maria has also been linked but the former Rosario Central player is keen to remain in Paris.
“I am very happy here and I have two years of contract left. There have been rumours, but I am happy and I will stay here until the end of my contract. I prefer to stay here, be happy and reach the objective I set for myself — Come to Paris and win the Champions League.”
If Draxler does indeed keep Di Maria out of the PSG team for the remainder of the season, it will be interesting to see if this still holds true.