Watching our FA Cup defeat to Arsenal I couldn’t help but think of how and why the Old Trafford crowd didn’t take to the languid, fluid magnificence of Dimitar Berbatov.
Instead it was his teammate, Carlos Tevez, who wooed the Stretford End and surrounding stands with his terrier like attitude and approach to the game.
The little Argentine’s pitched battle for a starting berth with the high-priced Bulgarian created a compelling narrative. It was grit vs. guile, a dog chasing cars cast against the elegance and élan of our new number nine. Berbatov was a man blessed with an abundance of natural ability, but not quite the northern steel and recognizable work rate that is expected of a United player. That valuable asset went to the man from just outside Buenos Aires.
The ex-Spur’s outrageous touch and sublime vision won him plenty of fans both before and after United, but not enough to win over some of football’s harshest critics; critics who, in fairness to them, have seen the best.
Berbatov’s is a story common in footballing circles. The forlorn square peg, round hole that can throw anyone for a loop.
My contemplations today were whether dollars paid would or should triumph over a spot that had been earned.
The player responsible for these thoughts? Football’s hottest topic: Angel Di Maria. Let’s go back to the beginning. How could we not have been excited? I cooed when he meshed audacity and the most delicate of touches to dink the ball over Kasper Schmeichel.
I oohed and ahhed at his early season interplay across the front line and slaloms down the channel; his beautifully weighted in swinging crosses left keepers betwixt and between. Fullbacks couldn’t live with him and we could barely remember a time before him.
His exuberance when we scored – even when he wasn’t involved – made me warm and fuzzy inside. Dropping to his knees in front of the Stretford End after van Persie denied Chelsea all three points told me he cared.
Lately, it’s plain to see all is not right.
Having been to Manchester I know and accept it’s not Madrid; there’s every chance he’s not seen the sun since August, though I’ll admit I’m not a weatherman.
Whatever cultural adjustment was required I thought he’s a professional. He’ll adjust. He’ll make it work and make us better at the same time.
Besides, Juan, Marcos, David, Ander and co. are there, they’ll form their own little clique and Angel will be A-OK. He’ll fit right in.
Then there were a couple niggles and a well publicized burglary. Now there’s a seeming crisis of confidence, a diving controversy and an ill-fated attempt to get the referee’s attention.
Played on the left, the right, through the middle, just off the striker, as a support striker – he’s failed to impress sufficiently to make any of those spots on Louis Van Gaal’s team sheet his own.
Angel Di Maria is one of the most naturally gifted and breathtakingly skillful players I’ve had the pleasure of watching in our famous red shirt, but he’s not made for the English game. Maybe he could have been, but his arrival has come too late in his career for any meaningful change.
This isn’t a segue into a bestest league in the world (copyright Sky) rant, because plainly the English Premier League isn’t currently the best league in the world.
This is me saying you don’t enter an Aston Martin Vanquish in the Dakar Rally. The harsh environment is no place for a sleek, sophisticated supercar with the ride height of a sled. It’s just not made to tackle that terrain.
The rough and tumble, knees and elbows, tackles so late they arrive the day after the match culture of the English Premier League made Cristiano Ronaldo the player he is today. Without it he’d have been great, but nowhere near the unstoppable force he became.
He bulked up to compete physically in the deck and in the air. He strengthened through the hips and legs to ride the challenges he knew were coming.
For Di Maria, the modification required both physically and mentally is too much this far into his career.
The EPL is touch a nastier and a fraction more frantic and unhinged than it’s continental equivalents. What’s more important is the teams Di Maria used to represent would routinely boss games, affording the Argentine the opportunity to float in and out, striking when your focus was on something – or someone – else.
He doesn’t have that luxury now. He needs to accept he’s the focal point and drive our forays forward with a confidence that better matches his ability.
During his lean spell I’ve come to terms with the inevitability of his fate at the Theatre of Dreams. I don’t want to lose such a talent, but I don’t make the calls. Either way, it’s clear neither party is enjoying this union.
As things stand we can’t carry a player who runs one way. It’s why Mata can’t rate a mention. It’s why Januzaj has had to sit out large swathes of season 14/15.
It’s why Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, for all their faults and limitations, are favorites of Van Gaal. They do their best to ensure we’re never vulnerable when not in possession.
Young is one of the only players in the squad to have unequivocally improved under Van Gaal.
For all Di Maria’s flair and sophistication he just doesn’t work hard enough. The number of times Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal’s most dangerous and influential player, had Valencia one-on-one was unforgivable. Tony wouldn’t have been out of line demanding a little assistance from his fellow South American.
At fault for Arsenal’s opening goal, Di Maria’s reticence or inability to spot Monreal’s run until he was shaping to shoot simply isn’t good enough. If he’s alive to the danger Monreal doesn’t score, he can’t.
If you would indulge a misty eyed trip down memory lane (its all we have at the moment), Cantona had the sophistication too. But he was also driven and ruthless beyond compare.
A fierce and tireless competitor, to get the better of King Eric meant you’d have to go to war; you’d have to beat him on his battlefield. His Gallic swagger could make you feel like you were isolated and playing on the other side of the world.
He was out of the Ferguson mold, a perfect solider for the Scot who demanded characters he could depend on to be the physical manifestation of his calculated, crippling mind games.
Fergie would talk the talk and you damn well better walk the walk. Skill was essential, but heart, hunger and will were completely and utterly non-negotiable.
It was real scrub up or f&@k off type stuff.
Robbo, Brucey, Pally, Ince, Sparky and Keano, Scholes, Giggs and Neville were players who never let you down in this regard. When the game got willing they got going. You might have a chance of outplaying Manchester United, but you weren’t going to out-fight them as well. Just ask Newcastle following the March 4, 1996 epic at St. James Park.
It goes without saying Di Maria doesn’t have the build of some of those names – He most certainly wouldn’t have the chest hair based on some of his recent efforts – but that’s no excuse for mishit crosses, shallow passes and failing to track back.
That Ashley Young, to his great credit, represents a more functional and worthwhile winger than his highly credentialed teammate seemed farcical just six months ago. Now it’s a reality.
Di Maria best encapsulates the difference between reputation and performance of this contemporary United and how, bafflingly, we aren’t better and more free flowing than we ought to be. It’s a shame games aren’t played on paper, because we’ve got the best fantasy football team out there.
With players as maddeningly brilliant as Angel Di Maria choosing flight instead of fight, our opponents have far less reason to fear the battle.
Like Dimitar Berbatov, our eminently gifted number seven is a man who seemed made for us. It’s not turning out that way.
Written by Sean. Follow him on Twitter.