Di Maria key to Real's season

Posted by Rob Train

Things didn't look too good for Angel di Maria last summer. The Argentina international was among the group of players favoured by outgoing coach Jose Mourinho when reports of a dressing-room rift circulated widely in the media. Di Maria, one of Mourinho's first acquisitions as Real manager, declared himself rather upset when he learned that his Portuguese mentor was to leave the Bernabeu.

"Mourinho made me a better player," Di Maria said. "He taught me many things and made me grow as a player. He helped me to adapt to a new position and to contribute more to the team in general. I'm very grateful to him. The Di Maria of Rosario Central compared to the one now, tactically and technically, is a different one."

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Real's summerlong pursuit of Gareth Bale, coupled with the signing of Isco from Malaga, was expected to result in somebody at the club being sacrificed at the last minute to make room on a sizable squad, and most of the betting money was on Di Maria. Many people -- including a lot of Real's playing staff -- were taken completely by surprise when Mesut Ozil was offloaded as the transfer window came to a close instead of the scurrying winger, who had been on the bench in deference to the Germany playmaker for the opening two games of the season. How would Di Maria fit into the new system with Bale and Isco in Ozil's absence?

The answer was provided by the player, who had hardly been in inspiring form in Mourinho's final season. Di Maria exploded in the early stages of this campaign, scoring, providing assists and covering more ground than anyone else as he scampered to his back four's aid match after match. An in-form player is always hard to overlook, and Carlo Ancelotti duly devised a system whereby Di Maria could perform to his strengths, switching to a 4-3-3 from a 4-2-3-1 as early as November, in the derby match against Rayo. Other than Asier Illarramendi standing in that evening for the injured Xabi Alonso, the preferred six of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano -- the BBC -- in front of Di Maria, Alonso and Modric has taken root.

Whether this formation would have been scribbled on Ancelotti's tactics board had Sami Khedira not been ruled out for the season, only the Italian knows. But it has been bearing fruit, and despite a setback in San Mames on Sunday, there seems to be no reason for experiment as the business end of the season approaches.

Bale's injury setbacks have given Jese a chance to cement his place as Real's 12th man, but Di Maria has become the heart and soul of the side. Illarramendi was signed not as a partner for Xabi Alonso but an understudy. The Spain international's protracted contract negotiations had as much to do with the 30 million outlay on the Real Sociedad player as Florentino Perez's desire to hoover up the best available homegrown talent.

Isco was signed with a view to slotting straight into first-team reckoning, but he has fallen by the wayside somewhat since a poor display against Atletico in Real's first loss of the season. Despite a spectacular start to his Madrid career, the 21-year-old has become a victim of the change of formation -- and the form of Di Maria.

The Argentine offers more in terms of pressuring sides in their own half and is more assured in defence than previously; against Espanyol in the recent cup match, he tracked back from an advanced position, nicked the ball at the corner flag, turned his man and played a deft pass to launch another attack. The Bernabeu rose in ovation, as it has done whenever Di Maria has been substituted since his minor shorts-adjusting episode in January. The crowd reacts to a player breaking his back for the side, and Di Maria is certainly doing that.

His numbers in the attacking half speak for themselves: 49 assists in 144 league and European matches in three and a half seasons with an average of two key passes per game. In 2013-14, he has racked up six goals and 10 assists from 20 starts and been substituted more often than not.

One of the best pieces of business Real Madrid pulled off last summer -- and this January -- was holding on to a dynamic, adaptable player, who in his way is as important to the side as anyone else. The Bernabeu's reward has been consistent excellence from Di Maria, who will be even more important in coming weeks if Ronaldo picks up a lengthy ban for his reaction to a red card in Bilbao when the LFP disciplinary committee convenes on Wednesday.

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