After several seasons of transfer market flirtations, the move is finally done: Angel di Maria will join Paris Saint-Germain from Manchester United. The transfer, which reportedly commanded a fee of nearly $70 million, was officially announced on Thursday by the French club.
The move is set to be one of the most exciting transfers of the summer – without a doubt. PSG has one of the most talented and ambitious squads on the planet, and Di Maria’s unique versatility and technical quality make him a player that can add to the team in a myriad of ways: it seems like a perfect match.
But after a disappointing 2014-15 season in England, Di Maria’s arrival at Parc des Princes will obviously give rise to many questions as well. Can a move to PSG return Di Maria to his best form? And, in a squad as stacked as PSG’s, just where will the malleable Argentine best fit in?
Di Maria reached the peak of his footballing level at Real Madrid, where he played in pretty much every spot above the midfield line. He played as a wide winger, a wide inside forward and, eventually, as a box-to-box midfielder much closer to the center of the pitch. He was fantastic everywhere.
Di Maria’s position on the pitch at the club and international levels has changed over the years, but his main focus has stayed the same: providing support in virtually all phases of the game throughout the length of the pitch. The World Cup runner-up possesses an uncanny combination of speed, stamina and technical prowess that allows him, not only to participate in a great number of actions, but also to find effective solutions in these situations.
Last year, Manchester United head coach Louis Van Gaal attempted to make Di Maria a key figure in his system, playing him as a sort of hybrid between a box-to-box midfielder and a very dynamic playmaker. However, the Dutchman ran into a huge stumbling block: His midfield lacked stability.
At Old Trafford, Di Maria was surrounded by high-risk takers like him — players like Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini, who can pull brilliant moves in the final third, but can spell disaster when played together at the helm of the team. Di Maria promotes chaos rather than order, and as Van Gaal desperately searched for the latter, the argentine became more and more limited.
At PSG, the context will be completely different. The French club’s main options at central midfield currently include Marco Verrati, Adrien Rabiot, Blaise Matuidi and Tiago Motta: all players who are extremely adept at controlling the tempo and using possession sensibly. They can provide the type of controlled environment where Di Maria’s explosiveness and erraticism will inevitably shine.
This is, of course, a double-edged sword for the Argentine — sharing a team with all those players means stiff competition. Fortunately, Di Maria’s versatility provides many options for himself as well as for his new manager within PSG’s traditional 4-3-3 formation.
One possibility for Laurent Blanc would be to play Di Maria as a “box-to-box” near central midfield. In that case, the former Manchester United player would most likely play next to Verrati and Matuidi, who were indispensable to the team during the past season. This plan, however, would be contingent on Blanc growing more comfortable with allowing either the Italian or the Frenchman to take the deep-lying midfielder role – which is by no means a sure thing.
Otherwise, Di Maria could also play further forward as an attacker on one of the flanks. There, he would compete with the likes of Lucas Silva, Javier Pastore and Edinson Cavani – but the competition could prove easier, should Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s rumored transfer away from PSG become a reality.
In either of the two main possibilities, Di Maria would be enveloped in a solid web of tactical systems and subsystems, that would embrace the benefits of his chaotic play, while, at the same time, cushioning the backlash.
With Di Maria, the question has never been about talent, but rather about context. The Argentine has proven that, when given the right surroundings, he can be a superstar – and that is just what he might find in his immediate future.