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Why Ángel Di María is exactly what Manchester United need

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He's not a defender, he's not really a central midfielder, and he doesn't solve every problem. But Manchester United's record signing is precisely what the club need right now.

Paul Gilham

Manchester United's signing of Ángel Di María has provoked near-unprecedented unity in the footballing commentariat. He's an excellent player, runs the consensus, but he's not what they need. Various metaphors have been deployed in support of this argument — paper over cracks, hats instead of trousers, and so on — but perhaps the most resonant comes from the Times. Drawing the comparison (£) with Manchester City's signing of Robinho, the paper recalls a "senior official" later admitting that "It was like putting the cherry on top of the cake when the thing had still to be properly baked, let alone iced."

It's an odd concern, this one. Firstly, if cake is how we're going to play this, then the assessment of a transfer window before that window has closed is like eating a cake before it's done. Cherry or not, that's never sensible. If Di María isn't the entirety of what United need — and literally nobody is suggesting that he is — then that only matters if his purchase somehow prevents United also getting other signings that they need. If his arrival blocks that of a midfielder, say.

That would only be the case if Ed Woodward is incapable of arranging two deals at once, or if the money isn't there, and we're assured that neither is true (though we've only evidence for the latter). So while it might be nice if the cake had been finished earlier, ultimately it won't be cooked until 11 o'clock on Monday evening. Stop opening the oven to check. And stop eating the cherries.

Secondly, even if Di María doesn't end up being followed into Old Trafford by a proper central midfielder and perhaps another central defender, then he will still have addressed a long-standing, desperate need in the United side. After all, there have been plenty of things missing from recent Manchester United showings; not just the two games that the club has played under Louis van Gaal, but back through the David Moyes Interruption and even, in nascent form, in the latter days of Alex Ferguson. Di María won't entirely address the gaping hole where the midfield used to be, and he won't sort out the defence, but he can help with the fact that United have become almost embarrassingly paceless.

A Manchester United side without pace is like a cake without sugar: it's the right shape, and it can sometimes get the job done if nobody's paying too much attention, but ultimately it's nothing but useless stodge. And we're not just talking about rapid players here: Danny Welbeck and Adnan Januzaj move plenty quickly, as does Ashley Young when he's not hurtling through the air. Antonio Valencia was ranked by FIFA as the fastest player at the World Cup, and even allowing for FIFA being an entirely ridiculous organisation, he's quite nippy.

But leaving Januzaj aside because he's still but a bairn and will be plenty brilliant before too long, none of the them have been playing like it. United's goal on Sunday, which saw Antonio Valencia get round his man on the outside, was practically a collector's item. This is a side that now butcher breaks with the same regularity that they used to score from them, and the general air of immobility has become one of the more poignant and painful aspects of watching United play recently. Wingers, frightened to be wingers; wing-backs cutting inside and rolling it square; strikers nestling in the pockets of defenders; Juan Mata, desperate for somebody running into space, having to play a percentage ball into Wayne Rooney's feet.

Perhaps we could suggest that there's a difference between quickness, which is a has to do with running, and pace, which has to do with running applied to football with the specific end of tearing things up. The difference between kicking and passing; the difference (well, one of the differences) between David Bellion and Cristiano Ronaldo. Take Valencia as an example. He's still quick, though his self-doubt and collapsed form means that his pace is very rarely in evidence; if it were, then he'd still be passing defenders on the outside and whipping the ball to the far post. He'd still be making goals. He'd still be useful.

Pace makes everybody better. Carrying the ball from midfield at pace makes strikers better, as they have a retreating defence through which to angle their runs. Running in behind a defence at pace makes the playmaker better, as the speed embiggens the space into which they can stroke the ball. Dribbling in from the wing at pace has scared defenders since football became football. Remember when United were scary? Not just respected or feared, but genuinely terrifying? It's been a while.

And that's what Di María is here to do. If he plays in midfield, he's to drive between the lines; on the wing, to cut inside; up front, to dart and harry and generally terrify. United aren't just trying to rebuild a squad, they're attempting to restore an aura, and while reinforcing the defence and stiffening the midfield is important, their not going to do the job on their own. Comparisons with last season's Liverpool side are obviously odious for all sorts of reasons, but they do handily demonstrate that a side doesn't need to be balanced to be brilliant. (Though they may need to be balanced to win the league.)

There has never been a great United side that didn't have at least one player who wasn't just quick, but was quick, brilliant, direct and effective at the same time. That didn't have pace. That's the key. Di María isn't a pure sprinter, and his game is different to that of Ronaldo, of the young Ryan Giggs, of Andrei Kanchelskis, of all his antecedents as United's terror-in-chief. But he's here to do a similar job. To make defenders worry, to tie them up in their own inadequacies, and to make his teammates feel, for the first time in ages, that they're the mighty Manchester United and they should be feared. If United are a cake, then Di María isn't the cherry. He's the raising agent.