Early May 2015 and Manchester United were on a run of three defeats, one of them the worst performance of the season at Everton.
They’d lost at Chelsea too, ending the slight hope of red-eyed optimists that United could storm the title after four straight wins against Tottenham, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City. Realists had seen these as games which would sink United’s season and Champions League hopes. Instead, they galvanised it – but only briefly.
Angel di Maria, United’s £59.7 million record signing and the most expensive player ever to play in Britain, didn’t feature in any of those four wins. His agent Jorge Mendes came to see the Manchester derby, but watched another two of his clients, David de Gea and Radamel Falcao instead.
Di Maria’s last start had been in the game before the run, a 2-1 home FA Cup 6th round defeat to Arsenal. Then, he’d set up Wayne Rooney for a flying header for United’s goal. Any hopes that he could become a key figure in helping his side win the only trophy left to the mediocre United were dashed as they chased an equaliser. The Argentine was sent off in the 77th minute – two yellow cards after diving and then tugging the referee’s shirt as he walked away. Bizarrely, he was applauded off the field by fans. He applauded back, but his mood would darken over the next month. Suspended, he lost any chance of momentum.
Di Maria wasn’t missed. His teammates thought he was a man who didn’t want to be in England, let alone Old Trafford. His English was limited and while reports of a February attempted robbery at his house had been overplayed, his family struggled to settle. It wasn’t easy with a daughter born prematurely and given only a 30% chance of survival, but United were satisfied that the Di Marias were reasonably happy even as autumn turned to a Mancunian winter.
On the pitch, Di Maria started well, his goal at Leicester in that cataclysmic 5-3 defeat United’s best of the season. He was an indulgence who was indulged, unusually, by a boss who seldom makes exceptions. After that Leicester defeat when United became more conservative, other players were told to stop dribbling or hitting cross-field diagonal passes. But Di Maria was given free rein. To stop him using his ability to run at players would have been sacrilege even for the now ultra-cautious Van Gaal, but Di Maria’s form was inconsistent. He started only 20 league games, scored only three league goals. Chris Smalling scored more league goals, though Di Maria did make more assists – ten – than any other player in league games.
The first world star United had signed at the height of his career since compatriot Juan Sebastian Veron 13 years earlier proved a huge disappointment. Whether he was needed in a team with more pressing deficiencies was moot.
“It was also the first time we’d signed a player who had a plectrum for a head,” observed one United fanzine writer.
Initially delirious United fans celebrated the signing and Di Maria’s shirt was, by a distance, the best selling one at Old Trafford last autumn. He himself bought shirts to send back to Argentina, walking through the club’s Megastore as Veron once did, pointing at items and saying ‘Yes, yes, yes’. The second most popular was Radamel Falcao; another stellar signing as United aped Real Madrid with galactico buys.
Di Maria’s sale was also Madrid’s record transfer. Madrid fans were sad to see the player who’d been man of the match as they won a tenth European Cup final depart. Madrid’s president was (ironically) criticised for selling a player who didn’t sell shirts. Criticism in Spain melted away as Madrid were crowned world champions.
By May, when Madrid could have done with his help against Juventus in the Bernabeu, the shirts with Di Maria’s name no longer sold, old favourites like Wayne Rooney back at number one.
Di Maria had also had his head turned by Paris Saint-Germain – because PSG failed to bag Memphis Depay. They’d been led to believe he was available by his agent, who then went back to Manchester United. Cornered, United concluded the Depay deal within 16 hours.
United had initially hoped he’d stay and come good. It’s normal for players to take time to settle and adjust to the nuances of English football. But the club then sought to save face as Di Maria only started one of the final 10 games of the season – a soporific 0-0 draw at Hull on the final day, his spindly legs leaden. It’s likely to be his last game in red. Weeks before, Di Maria was dreadful against West Brom, mis-hitting three consecutive crosses and displaying the body language of a man sleepwalking through a nightmare.
Few clubs could afford him. Barcelona would have been subjected to a €10 million premium to Real Madrid, because of a clause in his contract. That left PSG, who’d wanted him a year ago but were restricted by Financial Fair Play rules.
Paris are set to get their man in a £44.3 million deal – United’s second most expensive sale after Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s a £15.4 million loss – roughly one year in the capital amortisation models United use to justify signings – and the club may have been able to command more had the Euro/£ exchange rate not swung 20% in the 11 months since he signed. United still owe Madrid two thirds of the money, too.
Di Maria was booked on a flight to San Francisco with Sergio Romero and Marcos Rojo last week. Only the goalkeeper boarded the plane in Buenos Aires. Rojo, passportless, made his way to Manchester, Di Maria went to ground.
After PSG had beaten Manchester United in Chicago, Van Gaal claimed he had no idea where his most expensive player was. As he said it, Sir Alex Ferguson and PSG boss Laurent Blanc stood outside the changing rooms deep in conversation.
Van Gaal will blame a player once rated one of the best in the world for failing to buy into his philosophy, Di Maria will blame the United manager for failing to make the most of his talents. Whatever, it didn’t work out.