Just 12 months after joining United in an eye-watering, then-British record £59.7million deal from Real Madrid, the Argentine winger was already on his way out of Old Trafford, set for Paris Saint-Germain after a troubled solitary year in England.
Di María’s United career amounted to 32 first-team appearances and four goals. Considering his transfer fee and wages amounted to over £70million, he earned over £800,000-per-game, yet his legacy of being United’s most expensive on-field failure remains intact.
There was something surreal about his transfer to United from the outset.
There he was, posing with Louis van Gaal with that all-too-familiar unnatural smile we see from expensive acquisitions who seem to be experiencing a whirlwind of emotions.
That much could be said for the Red Devils’ new man, whose excitement at the prospect of a bumper contract was probably tempered by confusion at meeting van Gaal for the first time. The Dutchman’s broken English and abrasive manner failing to ease a player with a hundred cameras fixed on him.
Di María was United’s first ‘Galáctico’ signing, a product of the club’s determination to flex their financial muscles on the back of a string of lucrative commercial partnerships secured by executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
The younger sections of United’s fanbase, unspoiled by scepticism, were understandably ecstatic that their club signed a world-class player, whose electrifying performances had inspired Real Madrid to Champions League glory and had helped Argentina to the World Cup final.
The more seasoned supporters, however, increasingly disaffected at the direction in which the club seemed to be heading, saw beyond the glamour of Di María’s record-shattering capture to ask: is this really the signing United need, or just the signing United want?
Regardless of how they felt, or whether Fergie would have approved, they had acquired a player of considerable gifts, one who, if he settled, would improve United after their worst-ever Premier League finish in the 2013/14 season under David Moyes’ doomed tenure.
Di Maria’s craft – the imagination and urgency with which he passed the ball – would surely prove a valuable commodity in a team lacking invention and enterprise. There was an expectation, too, that his change of pace, which allowed him to beat defenders zip down the flank in a flash, would breathe new life into United’s stale, predictable attacks.
He was far from the only arrival that summer, of course. United’s extensive recruitment drive saw the club splurge £150million to bring in Ander Herrera, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw and Radamel Falcao (the Colombian’s loan fee was £6million) with the primary aim of returning to the Champions League.
Di Maria’s influence needed to be immediate. By the time of his debut, away to Burnley, United had already lost at home to Swansea City before drawing 1-1 at Sunderland. Although the winger’s fee was £15million more than Burnley’s entire historical outlay on players, he failed to inspire United to three points as the two sides played out a 0-0 stalemate.
His home debut went much smoother, scoring and creating another for Juan Mata in a 4-0 rout of Queens Park Rangers. The record signing was always going to dominate the back pages but Blind and Herrera also impressed, while Falcao was introduced to fans for the first time, replacing Mata in the second half.
Suddenly things didn’t look so bleak.
And it got better before it got worse. In United’s next outing, his sumptuous chip over Kasper Schmeichel established a two-goal lead against Leicester City (which ended up being voted goal of the season). But then, disaster struck as United let slip a 3-1 advantage to lose 5-3, the first time in 853 Premier League matches they had surrendered a two-goal cushion and lost.
Merry Christmas everyone! Here's a Di Maria delight vs Leicester for your pleasure❤ pic.twitter.com/BsMhY5PZKB
— Train Effective (@TrainEffective) December 25, 2017
United’s response was commendable, taking seven points against West Ham, Everton and West Brom. Then came a Chelsea-Manchester City double-header, two games in which Di María could prove his worth as a marquee Premier League matchwinner.
Sadly, he flickered only sporadically across the two games. A 1-1 draw against Chelsea and a 1-0 defeat at the Etihad Stadium left United 13 points off the pace after just ten games. At that point, it had already become clear that Di María’s flashes of brilliance were insufficient in papering over the cracks in that United team. Central midfield was a definite weakness, as Chelsea and City’s superiority laid bare the deficiencies in van Gaal’s ranks.
Di María’s turning point proved to be November 29, when he limped off in the 13th-minute of United’s 3-0 defeat of Hull City. A hamstring tear meant he missed three weeks and, after recovering to face Aston Villa, a pelvic problem proved a frustrating setback.
A return to full fitness only brought out the worst in him, however, during a terribly wasteful display in a 1-0 home defeat to Southampton. Hauled off after 72 minutes having completed just 60 per cent of his passes, it was surprisingly not the nadir of the South American’s time in England.
That arrived in March, when he was sent off in reputation-destroying fashion during the FA Cup defeat to Arsenal at Old Trafford. He received two quickfire yellow cards; one for an embarrassing dive and the other for grabbing Michael Oliver’s shirt during his protestation. Van Gaal said there was no excuses.
After that, Di María lost his place under the coach and never fully regained his trust. Admittedly, although the player’s form dipped, there were factors outside of his control that contributed to the downward spiral.
He was neither the first nor the last to clash with van Gaal. The Dutchman’s tinkering didn’t help. Di María was poor in that Southampton game but he never should have been playing as a centre-forward in the first place. Because of that, his confidence took a hit and reflected poorly on van Gaal, whose handling of star-name players during his two years at the United helm was far from exemplary (Memphis Depay and David De Gea, for example).
In addition, van Gaal’s unbending faith in his ‘philosophy’ – which soon became a term to draw ire from United fans – stifled the midfielder’s creativity and the pair’s relationship only deteriorated further as the season wore on. Already struggling for form, a January burglary at his Cheshire residence unsettled him to the point where he began plotting a summer exit.
And by the time he left for PSG in a £44.3million deal, he had been voted the worst signing of the 2014/15 Premier League season. Following such a significant outlay, it was difficult to argue, but there had to be some sympathy for the Argentine. He arrived at Old Trafford to unprecedented expectations, looked upon as the man to usher in a new era of exciting, creative football at Old Trafford.
However, van Gaal’s man-management and tactics – Di María became marginalised for struggling when played out of position – unquestionably stunted his progress, while the Dutchman’s unpopular brand of low-intensity, possession-based football was a radical departure from what he had been used to playing for Madrid.
“I didn’t get on very well with the coach, so I think the decision to join Paris was the best solution,” he told Le Parisien after joining PSG. “After [the break-in] it wasn’t reasonable to stay. My family wasn’t happy. My daughter was suffering. So it was important to leave.
“Honestly, we were not happy. In the beginning, we were a little. But then things became complicated. Life in England was a bit difficult. It is not easy for a South American. Some people get on fine, and for others, it is harder to adapt.”
His comments certainly strike a chord. Although several South Americans have flourished in England, many find the transition on and off the pitch tough going.
That was true for Di María who, despite showing great early promise, fizzled out during his disappointing year at United, his time in England amounting to a curious blip in an otherwise decorated career.
He was always a great player at Manchester United but, sadly, he was rarely a great player for Manchester United.