Manchester United: Angel Di Maria can thrive as Old Trafford star man

By Tim VickeryBBC Sport's South American football expert
Argentina forward Angel Di Maria
Di Maria won the Champions League with Real Madrid last season

After his Atletico Madrid side had drawn 1-1 with local rivals Real Madrid in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup, coach Diego Simeone observed that "the game changed with the introduction of Angel Di Maria. It's logical - he's the best player they have, the one most likely to create openings in the opposition half."

Cristiano Ronaldo may not agree, and Simeone's analysis of the man Manchester United have signed for a British record fee of £59.7m could have contained an element of one Argentine boosting another.

But it is hard to disagree with Di Maria's importance to Real Madrid's 2013-14 campaign, rounded off, of course, by a man-of-the-match performance against Atletico in the final of the Champions League.

How, then, can a man so instrumental to the long-awaited 10th continental title - La Decima - be so soon declared surplus to requirements?

Di Maria's Real demise was predicted a year ago, when the club spent a fortune on Gareth Bale. Despite making a season-long statement of his worth, the Argentine has now fallen victim to the compulsive buying of the Spanish giants.

Angel Di Maria
Di Maria scored seven goals in 76 Portuguese league appearances while at Benfica

With the acquisition of James Rodriguez - yet another top-quality left-footed attacking midfielder - Di Maria has been allowed to leave.

Presumably, one of the main attractions of the move to Manchester is that the size of the transfer fee should guarantee the 26-year-old the thing he was denied at Madrid - an important place in the pecking order.

What makes him worth such status is the developing maturity of his game.

From the city of Rosario, like Lionel Messi, and born just a few months later, Di Maria always had the capacity to run with the ball at pace. Greyhound slim and whippet fast, Di Maria first came to my attention at the start of 2007, playing for Argentina in the South American Under-20 Championships in Paraguay.

He was interesting but infuriating, drifting in and out of games, playing in spurts and often restricted to the role of impact substitute.

In the next few months, though, he made his senior breakthrough as a goalscoring winger for the Rosario Central club. Then, in July, already more interesting and less infuriating, he made an important contribution alongside Sergio Aguero as Argentina won the World Under-20 title in Canada.

A year later, in China, he raced behind the Nigerian defensive line to score the goal that clinched the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Biggest transfer fees paid by a British club
£50mFernando TorresLiverpool to Chelsea2011
£42.4mMesut OzilReal Madrid to Arsenal2013
£38mSergio AgueroAtletico Madrid to Manchester City2011
£37.1mJuan MataChelsea to Manchester Utd2014
£35mAndy CarrollNewcastle to Liverpool2011
£35mAlexis SanchezBarcelona to Arsenal2014

By then, he was already in Europe, having joined Benfica in 2007, and he moved on to Real Madrid three years later for £20m.

Always a dangerous winger, it is in the last couple of seasons that he has become a much more useful all-round footballer.

The idea of using Di Maria on the left of a three-man midfield was a bold one, and was not an instant success with the national team. "I had no idea what Di Maria was doing," said influential former Argentina coach Cesar Menotti after a defeat by Venezuela in World Cup qualification almost three years ago.

Fast forward to 2014, though, and Di Maria has made progress with the speed of one his forward surges.

The ever astute Jonathan Wilson, author of Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, described him recently as "tactically probably the most important member of the Real Madrid side in 2013-14" in his deeper midfield role.

"He pulled wide when Cristiano Ronaldo went inside. He shuttled to provide the link between the midfield of Xabi Alonso (or Sami Khedira in the Champions League final) and Luka Modric and the forward line, [and] he sat in when Marcelo overlapped him from full-back," explained Wilson, who judges that Real's decision to let Di Maria go could prove as foolish as the similar blunder they made with Claude Makelele just over a decade ago.

Di Maria scores winner for Argentina

The size of Manchester United's gain would be all the more apparent had Di Maria not broken down during the recent World Cup.

During qualification, Argentina had felt their way towards a way in which to accommodate 'the fantastic four' attacking talents. Messi was operating behind Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, with Di Maria bursting from deep, taking advantage of the space opened up by the three in front of him.

In the event, though, the expectations never came close to being met.

Aguero was nowhere near fit, Higuain was off colour and nothing seemed to go Di Maria's way. In Argentina's dramatic second-round meeting with Switzerland, Di Maria gave the ball away 51 times and recorded a pass completion rate of 63% - appalling statistics, but ones which throw some light on his strength of character.

However badly things were going, Di Maria never hid, never played safe, never shirked his responsibility - and he was rewarded for his persistence with a superb 118th-minute winner, sliding home Messi's sublime pass.

In the quarter-final against Belgium, he helped set up what turned out to be the winning goal, only to limp off with the thigh problem that would end his tournament.

Angel Di Maria
Di Maria inspired Argentina to Olympic gold at the 2008 Beijing Games with the winner in the final

His presence in the final against Germany could have been decisive. Especially in the first half, Germany's high defensive line would surely have had problems coping with the pace of Argentina's number seven - a famous shirt, of course, in Manchester United folklore.

Di Maria coming to England is an outcome which always seemed likely at some stage in his career.

When he joined Benfica seven years ago he was reported as saying that he wanted to do well enough to earn a move to Chelsea. Subsequently he has declared an affection for Manchester United.

Reproducing last season's Real Madrid form in a red shirt will surely give Di Maria a lasting place in the affections of United fans.

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