Usually, Angel Di Maria has to wait for an injury to happen. He’s good enough to start any day of the week, but unless one of Edinson Cavani, Neymar, or Kylian Mbappe go down, Di Maria finds himself in the shadows of his flashier teammates. Sometimes, he doesn’t play at all.
But when one of Paris Saint-Germain’s front three does go down – and this season, all three have missed time – Di Maria makes his presence felt. Even in the most difficult matches, the 31-year-old is a game-changer. In September, for instance, Real Madrid couldn’t keep up with the shape-shifting Argentine and lost 3-0. Di Maria scored two of those goals in devastating fashion. Though he started on the left wing, he made regular appearances on the right and found pockets of space between the lines.
Praise, however, has been hard to come by. It seems Di Maria’s entire career has been defined not by his achievements, but by the things he’s failed to do. His forgettable 2014-15 season at Manchester United skewed opinions of a player who is committed, professional, and above all, world-class.
His former Manchester United teammates reportedly complained about a lack of character – one source described Di Maria to The Independent’s Miguel Delaney as “talented but a complete fanny” – but that’s at odds with everything else he’s done. Carlo Ancelotti, who coached Di Maria in Madrid and even played him in midfield, noted that the player would sacrifice himself for the team. Di Maria’s current boss, Thomas Tuchel, said he’s a “gift” to manage at PSG.
Di Maria is also one of the few in history to call Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar a teammate. A cerebral player who takes care of the smallest details, he not only had the quality to partner with Messi and Ronaldo but also the flexibility to accommodate them. Teams could have built themselves around Di Maria, but he’s worked best as a complementary piece on already great squads. Perhaps things didn’t work out at United because he was forced to be the marquee star.
In Paris, Di Maria’s role is just as functional as it was in Madrid. He’s willing to provide the raw materials for a counterattack and do things that other forwards don’t like to do.
“As an attacker, you can’t just be happy to beat players,” Di Maria said in 2014. “You want to make an all-round contribution to the team.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t beat players. When he runs at defenders, he’s a speed demon, hitting the next gear with every stride. His two goals against Nice on Friday came on a pair of penetrative runs. The touch to score the second was outstanding, as he struck a wonderful lob that carried just enough weight to elude the ‘keeper’s desperate reach.
That’s the value in Di Maria’s approach. He’s not just a frivolous attacker who depends on dribbling to get into open space. Playing with some of the best footballers in the world has forced him to move into different areas and attack from unconventional positions. He loves scoring goals, but he also has an appreciation for the smaller things.
Despite all of that, Di Maria doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Much like former teammate Karim Benzema, who’s performed consistently over the past decade, he’s still fighting for international recognition. And with Cavani, Mbappe, and Neymar all set to return, Di Maria will go back to being PSG’s biggest – and most valuable – secret.
Around the continent
Roma tackling racism head-on
Roma continue to lead the charge against racism in Italy – even against their own kind. After learning that their fans had racially abused Sampdoria midfielder Ronaldo Vieira on Sunday, the club’s outspoken Twitter account apologized and vowed to identify and ban them. And two weeks ago, Roma publicly shamed an Instagram user who’d sent racist messages to Juan Jesus. Beyond empty catchphrases and PR campaigns, Roma are actually taking on racists and doing something about them. If only Serie A treated culprits with the same purpose.
Zidane feeling the heat
When Zinedine Zidane returned to Madrid, he put his legacy on the line to lead a rebuild. He may have had money to spend – more than €300 million on four signings – but he’s now stuck with a team in flux. Some of his newly acquired players are yet to take off, and some of his trusted allies in the squad are slowing with age. Zidane’s side lost 1-0 to lowly Mallorca over the weekend and is facing an early elimination from the Champions League, having collected just one point through two group matches. It’s unclear whether president Florentino Perez will have the patience to stick with Zidane if the season goes belly-up.
Wolfsburg shocking the Bundesliga
Try to name the three teams in Europe’s top five leagues that remain unbeaten. If you guessed Wolfsburg, you cheated. This season’s surprise package currently sits second in the Bundesliga with four wins, four draws, and zero defeats. Despite losing first-choice goalkeeper Koen Casteels to injury, Wolfsburg have conceded a league-low five goals. Their three-man defense has responded to every challenge, including a tough battle against fellow Bundesliga contenders RB Leipzig on Saturday. In that match, Wolfsburg muzzled Leipzig’s attack and limited Timo Werner’s effectiveness to preserve a 1-1 draw.