The plaudits have come from all quarters, from manager, players and supporters. It feels like an entire club is experiencing the giddy sensations of falling in love with a footballer.
Manchester United last experienced it during Robin van Persie’s golden, goal-filled debut campaign, 2012/13. Yet then there was an expectation of excellence, an annual title challenge to sustain them. Then United endured their most miserable season for a quarter of a century and signed Angel di Maria.
No wonder that there is an element of wide-eyed wonder among the fans, still surprised that one of the world’s best players has traded the European champions for last year’s great underachievers.
It scarcely seems to matter at the moment that United overpaid for a player Real wanted to sell. Nor have Carlo Ancelotti’s suggestions that Di Maria left the Bernabeu for a pay rise dented his standing at Old Trafford. His relationship with United is at that pure stage where motives are not questioned. His blend of art, craft and graft is such that he fits into the truest tradition of United’s finest players. They had attitude and ability alike.
Five games after a £59.7 million (Dh352.9m) move, Di Maria looks the modern-day successor.
While colleagues were never likely to criticise, their tributes have been frequent and generous. “A great signing,” Juan Mata said of the man who replaced him as United’s record signing. Daley Blind, another of the summer newcomers said: “He’s amazing. He is an excellent player. He can score goals, make assists.” Ander Herrera said: “Angel is one of the best players in the world.”
Assistant manager Ryan Giggs, who has two decades of experience as United’s left winger, said: “He gets bums off seats and he excites me. He’s the kind of player you love to watch.”
There has been praise from Madrid, too. Even James Rodriguez, the successor who was supposed to represent a fashionable upgrade on the unglamorous galactico Di Maria, has been hailing the Argentine.
His reputation has rarely been higher. It helps that his fan club includes United’s most popular recent player. If they cannot get back Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps the next best thing is to sign one of his favourite footballers.
For all his flicks and tricks, the Portuguese became a remarkably productive performer at Old Trafford. So, too, is the new No 7. Manager Louis van Gaal cited his tally of 22 assists, the most in Europe last season, when unveiling his most expensive addition. Di Maria has become a more regular scorer for his new employers. He goes to West Brom on Monday after his past four United games produced three goals and three assists.
He may have already won United’s goal-of-the-season competition with an astonishing scooped finish against Leicester City, revealing a rare combination of high-speed movement and delicate finish. Evidence of a current Midas touch is provided by the fact that two of Di Maria’s scuffed shots have become goal-supplying passes to teammates, whether Mata against Queens Park Rangers or Radamel Falcao versus Everton. Everything he has done has turned to goals.
Van Gaal has asked: “When you give assists and also you score goals, what can you ask more of a player?” The answer the manager has often provided is to deliver more off the ball. Di Maria’s work rate is rarely faulted but the challenge for him, and the other attacking talents, is to protect the inexperienced defence rather better.
The question if United can score more than they concede threatens to become the pivotal issue in their season. They didn’t at Leicester, where they lost 5-3, with the home side’s final two goals coming after Di Maria was, surprisingly, substituted.
For him, there is the question of what happens when United’s fixtures become tougher, when his mis-hit shots no longer turn into assists, when high-calibre opponents devote more time and manpower to halting the record-breaker.
Perhaps the Argentine, accustomed to life in Europe’s top team, will find it harder alongside lesser players and in an imbalanced team. But for now United and Di Maria look a marriage made in heaven. They are certainly in their honeymoon period.
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