One of my favourite sporting quotes, and surely one of the most prescient lines of wisdom delivered in modern football history, came in around 2004 from Zinedine Zidane, who accused the hierarchy of Real Madrid of ‘selling the engine of their Bentley to add another layer of gold paint’. He was referring to the decision to sell French midfielder Claude Makelele to Chelsea and replace him effectively with David Beckham – relinquishing the unsung hero of the original ‘Galactico’ era, with yet another poster boy superstar. The result: the awesome Madrid side of early part of the decade were transformed into a disjointed group of individuals which eventually fell into relative irrelevance on the European football landscape.
Whilst it’s hard to make the case that Angel Di Maria was as important to Carlo Ancelotti’s Champions League winning side last season, as Claude Makelele was to his team roughly this time ten years ago, it seems to me there’s an unmistakable feeling of history repeating itself in this instance. The Argentine midfielder was outstanding last year. Man of the Match in the both the CL final and in that vintage ‘El Clasico’ game which finished 4-3; with his boundless energy, electric pace and astonishing technical quality, he was the player to link the midfield and the forward line all season and it’s hard to imagine Madrid winning the trophies they did without him.
This season however, his place in the XI will be taken up by £65m Colombian superstar James Rodriguez, who for all his evident talent, hardly seems likely to improve the team from last season. He won’t offer the same industry in midfield as Di Maria, or the same pace on the counter attack. And though he may supply superior creativity in attacking positions, in a squad which already includes Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Xabi Alonso, that’s hardly an attribute in short supply. Not to mention the fact the club already has an outstanding young central attacking midfielder, signed only last season in Isco.
The ‘Galactico’ policy of recruitment employed by Florentino Perez has its obvious advantages and there can be no doubts Madrid are the biggest club in world football, largely because of it. But once again they’ve allowed their insatiable obsession for the individual to break apart a wonderfully balanced team. It’s likely they’ll still be utterly irrepressible in the majority of their matches and a fearsome side in Europe; I predict, however, that they’ll fail to improve on their third place finish in the league last season and that, as with Makelele, the sale of Di Maria will become a source of regret, as the team struggle to find the cohesion and the consistency which he was responsible for last year.
There exists however, a team perhaps being made to look even more foolish than Madrid as this deal is made official i.e. the club shelling out an unbelievable £60m to sign the player. There’s no doubt that Manchester Utd’s squad is in much need of some quality and of some genuine pace in attack, but the question of just where Di Maria will fit into the team is anything but clear. Louis Van Gaal has committed throughout all of pre-season to the 3-4-1-2, but the tactic leaves the Argentine without any obvious role to take up. To use him as a wing-back would surely be a waste of his attacking talents; to put him next to Ander Herrera in midfield would leave that area of the pitch looking particularly weak from a defensive point of view, and though he could play behind the strikers, where would that leave Juan Mata?
Of course Van Gaal could switch formations back to a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 and easily incorporate Di Maria into the side, but not without dropping one of Wayne Rooney or Robin Van Persie, or at least not without moving one of Mata or Rooney out into a wide position, where they’ve historically been far less effective. Having depth and variety in attacking positions is of course important for any top side, but when a new marquee signing forces you to drop, or inconveniently reposition one of your only three world class players, it’s hard to hide from the fact that something has gone seriously wrong with your transfer policy.
What makes it even worse, on top of the extortionate fee, is that the problems which Di Maria will solve are not even nearly the most urgent issues which currently exist in the squad. The utter lack of depth and quality at centre half and in central midfield are there for all to see, someone to play right wing back would probably be more useful than a new winger right now also, with Antonio Valencia not looking comfortable and Rafael being rubbish.
What really confuses me, is that these problems don’t even seem like particularly difficult ones to solve. Roma are actively looking to sell Mehdi Benatia, the Moroccan centre half who was outstanding last year and would be surely be an ideal defensive signing. Someone like Nigel De Jong could easily do a job in midfield and wouldn’t be hard to prise from an AC Milan side in need of cash. If Di Maria’s fee rises to £70m that means Utd could’ve signed both these players and still had £30m left for a right sided player like Juan Cuadrado, Seamus Coleman or Matteo Darmian etc and for the same amount of money, have had a far more balanced looking squad.
After years of being the club whom the entire country derided for its spending habits, it feels very good indeed to sit and watch the historically larger teams throw around money wastefully, whilst we enjoy watching a team, which in comparison to some others, looks to have been expertly put together. It’s obviously a huge advantage to have the kind of spending power we enjoy, but all the money in the world isn’t much use unless you spend it wisely in sport, and in a world where prices are becoming more and more drastically inflated with every window, the top clubs in England would do well to watch and learn from how Chelsea have been doing business these past few years.