Liverpool vs Manchester United: How can Louis van Gaal recall Angel Di Maria in place of Juan Mata?

ANALYSIS: Manchester United looked a better side without the out-of-form Argentinian at the weekend - but that doesn't necessarily mean he should miss out at Anfield, argues Ian Herbert

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The Independent Football

Angel Di Maria was reduced to a ‘meet and greet’ role at Old Trafford before Manchester United’s game against Tottenham yesterday. It is a part of Louis van Gaal’s matchday regime that players out of the squad are asked to be involved behind the scenes.

The Argentine, serving a one-game ban for his dismissal against Arsenal, seemed to accept this philosophically enough but the question ahead of the potentially defining game at Anfield on Sunday concerns whether there can be a way back into the starting line-up for him, after Juan Mata’s fine performance in the right-sided role in the 3-0 win. Di Maria’s absence certainly does not seem to have done United any harm whatsoever, though the poverty of Tottenham’s performance should give anyone reason to pause before drawing vast conclusions about yesterday/Sunday.

It certainly looks a straight shoot-out between Mata and Di Maria for the place at Anfield. Removing Marouane Fellaini from the equation would be an act of folly against a Liverpool side whose vulnerability to the aerial ball includes Martin Skrtel’s tendency to be looking away from the ball when he jumps. Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho are both fallible, too. Fellaini’s presence worried defenders and stretched the Old Trafford pitch for United on Sunday. Ashley Young’s performances have made the left hand berth his own, which leaves Van Gaal to choose between the precision of Mata, whose link play with Ander Herrera was at the core of United’s performances against Tottenham. The reception Mata received when leaving the pitch was remarkable.

Amid helpful suggestions to readers of his 'blog' today that they visit Manchester’s newly re-opened Whitworth Art Gallery and view the drawing technique of artists Cai Guo-Qiang, it was clear to see that Mata views the artistry he discovered on Sunday as a breakthrough moment. He would “never forget that applause,” he said and enjoyed playing again “from the beginning.” It was his first start in the Premier League since January 17 and only his fourth of the year.


Mata is eternally positive but the thoughts United’s staff had put in writing for him revealed the different psychological place he occupies from Di Maria. The Argentine has moved with his wife Jorgelina Cardoso and their one-year-old daughter into a city centre apartment after a break-in at their home at Prestbury, a rural Cheshire village, while they were all out at dinner. Van Gaal alluded to the psychological effects of the break-in during his press conference on Friday. “I don't think he shall move [clubs this summer],” the manager said. “In spite of this incident that he had with his wife at his home, he is very pleased to be here at Manchester United.”

Juan Mata was excellent against Spurs


But for all the challenges of acclimatising, the factor which plays in Di Maria’s favour ahead of Sunday is his ability to bring a dangerous level of pace down the flank in a game that will need it. Liverpool’s use of a three-man defence dictates that Di Maria would be most likely up against Lazar Markovic. It is a contest both he and his manager would feel is winnable for United – and that outcome would be more likelier if, as The Independent’ tactical analyst Danny Higginbotham has consistently argued, Van Gaal would only give him license to stay wide and compete 1 v 1 with his defender, rather than cut inside.

The way Liverpool’s set up makes the use of the wide areas vitally important and Van Gaal, knowing that his side will not be offered the same time in possession that a flimsy Tottenham side furnished them with, will also be looking for the ability to break out with pace on the counter-attack. Another requirement which makes the argument for Di Maria, whose pace is not something Mata possesses.

Van Gaal gives out directions to Ashley Young


Van Gaal has said that he needed to “watch the video again” before he could decide if he had just seen United’s best display of the season, though the Mata v Di Maria quandary that will demand the judgement of Solomon would have been immediately apparent. He knows Sunday, against the side top of the form table will be difficult. “Manchester United has not won too often the games in Liverpool,” he said. These occasions turn on exceptional, world class moments or bursts of pace. Di Maria is most capable of delivering them, which is why, despite the evidence of yesterday, Di Maria should be called back from the hospitality lounges to start at Anfield.