It was early in January. Real Madrid were playing Celta Vigo in La Liga, and the team had looked sluggish after coming back from the winter break. Recently Ángel Di María had looked devoid of inspiration, and there were strong rumours that he would be sold, with a number of suitors lurking. The Bernabéu was keen to see the introduction of Bale, and, as Di María was taken off for the Welshman, boos could be heard in the stadium. The Argentinian winger responded with a crude gesture, grabbing his crotch, and with that, his Real Madrid career was pronounced dead. Or at least, that was what most people thought.
After the world-record signing of Bale in the summer, Ancelotti had a decision to make regarding Özil and Di María. He needed to sell a star player to cover Bale’s transfer fee, and so was faced with a choice between the two. Eventually, he opted to keep Di María, selling Özil to Arsenal, but it would be an uphill struggle for the winger to re-assert himself in the team. Bale was guaranteed a place in the starting line-up due to his transfer fee, and, with opportunities limited for Di María, it seemed increasingly as if he was on his way out.
Nobody could have envisaged the transformation that Di María has undergone since that seemingly fateful day in January. With Ancelotti switching to a 4-3-3 formation, the Argentine has re-invented himself as a box-to-box midfielder, and has returned to his old, tireless self, once again winning the hearts of the Bernabeu crowd. In the process, he has become one of Madrid’s key players, and Ancelotti even admitted recently that he would have trouble picking the team when Sami Khedira comes back from injury.
‘Re-invent’ is perhaps too strong a word to use. What Di María has done is adapt to a new system, vindicating Ancelotti’s decision to keep him in the first place. He still displays all the qualities that he demonstrated on the left-wing, and has a relatively free role on the left side of midfield, alongside Xabi Alonso and Luka Modrić.
Di María’s never-say-die attitude marks him out from the rest of his team-mates, and it was this determination that initially made him a fans’ favourite. At times it is as if he never stops running, and his work-rate is impressive. The finest example of this industriousness came in the Supercopa two years ago (Spain’s equivalent of the Community Shield), when the Argentine dispossessed Victor Valdés inside the area and slotted home.
Although Valdés dawdled on the ball, the goal was largely down to Di María closing down the Barça goalkeeper and forcing him into a mistake.
The Bernabéu is a harsh crowd, but thankfully Di María has restored his image in the eyes of most supporters. He deserves credit for having adapted to a new position so seamlessly, and perhaps Ancelotti was right to sell the less versatile Özil instead of him. If Di María can help deliver La Décima this season, all will be forgiven.
By Tomás Hill López-Menchero
This article first appeared on Sabotage Times.