UEFA Champions League Final 2014: Angel Di Maria’s evolution this season the key for La Decima
Argentine winger Angel di Maria will be playing in perhaps the biggest football match of his career and he of all people is expected to play a vital role in Real Madrid’s quest for the hallowed La Decima. Real’s cross-town rivals Atletico Madrid won’t have it easy against the in-form Di Maria, who has looked nothing but the part in his new role under Carlo Ancelotti.
Di Maria has evolved from being the fall guy at the season’s start to being the most valuable Real player on the pitch. And the ride has been anything but bumpy. He doesn’t quite fit into Florentino Perez’s vision as a Galactico, and it was widely expected that he would be phased out of the Bernabeu sooner rather than later following the arrival of Gareth Bale.
But a good tactical mind of coach Carlo Ancelotti and Di Maria’s own exercise with patience has seen him grow into an unusual role; a role on the pitch he could never have imagined, at least until he was too old to run. But Di Maria is only 26, and is one of the quickest players in the world.
Gareth Bale’s imminent arrival already forced Ancelotti to ring the changes; and the Mesut Ozil departure signalled that Di Maria’s time was numbered too. But a combination of factors ranging from Cristiano Ronaldo’s public vouching to Bale’s initial injuries meant that Di Maria had to stay, at least for another season.
Di Maria is the archetypal South American winger; fast, strong, explosive with a low centre of gravity. His no-nonsense style of play smeared with passion and a desire for triumph meant that the journey from Rosario to Benfica and eventually to Real Madrid wasn’t long. Jose Mourinho pulled off a coup when he signed the exciting ‘winger’, but four years on he is far less a winger; he has developed into more of a midfielder.
As much as his future was uncertain at the start of the season, Di Maria played (started even) the majority of Los Blancos’ games as Ancelotti initially favoured his template 4-2-3-1 formation. Di Maria usually started on the right wing, and mostly had to contend with swapping places and starting berths with Bale. Once Sami Khedira got injured, Ancelotti had to devise another way to strengthen Real’s central midfield. New signings Isco and Asier Illarramendi were touted as replacements, while academy product Jese was hyped up.
The problem was that Isco was too attack-minded and lacked defensive discipline, and was physically too feeble for the midfield kick-and-rush. Illarramendi was a bit too similar to Xabi Alonso and produced little of note. Di Maria plays a similar role in the midfield for Argentina as well, and his change of position was thought of as a masterpiece. Real Madrid settled on their new reactive 4-3-3 with Di Maria playing an important role from deep.
The new left midfield role provided Di Maria with the flexibility that a player of his quality so often desires. He had a free role and it was easy for a player of his pace to help out defensively even. He gradually got involved in key parts of the play, and racked up assists after assists. His gameplay became more intelligent and we could see the sweeping changes in the once-much-maligned Argentine.
Di Maria as a winger had many deficiencies. He had pace to burn and was adept at turning the full-backs inside out. But his decision making had much to be desired and he often ended up with astray deliveries. Add to the fact that he is a utter disgrace with his weaker foot; that leaves him with only the option of cutting inside from his customary right-wing position. Cristiano Ronaldo holds his own on the other flank, which means Di Maria tended to be far too predictable for defenders until left midfield happened.
Di Maria has excelled as a shuttler in the 4-3-3 as he has lesser burden to carry, and more space to exploit. He doesn’t always have a full-back snapping at his heels now, and could carry out things with calm. And his decision-making doesn’t need to be exemplary either, as he is generally not involved in those key-pass-making-moments like a wing cross or a cut-back.
Real’s comprehensive win over Bayern Munich in the semi-final owed much to the brilliance of Di Maria in his new role. Carlo Ancelotti, Zinedine Zidane and Paul Clement have found ways to keep their most unpredictable attacking talent happy, and it could be the key between winning and losing the Champions League final.
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