Assumptions are dangerous things, but here at tBB we like to live on the edge. So let's begin this piece with one grade-A, 24-carat slice of chicken counting. Let's assume, for the moment, that Louis van Gaal will stick with this slightly lop-sided 4-3-3 not just for the rest of this season — which he surely must — but on into the next. That he's finally got a plan to go along with his philosophy.
If so — and it is a big if — then the future of Ángel Di María comes into sharper focus. Stories are circulating that United's record signing wants out at the end of the season, and while we've been hearing similar ever since his form drained away, these latest rumours come with the claim that he and Van Gaal clashed after United's victory at Anfield. He certainly looks like a man who's decided his future lies elsewhere, and it didn't pass unnoticed by some travelling fans that while the rest of the team came over for the post-Liverpool victory salute, the Argentine headed straight down the tunnel.
Why this matters is because Di María, in theory and in decent form, is an exciting fit for not just one, not even two, but three of the positions in United's current set-up. For all that the current incumbents are doing nicely, it seems likely that United are going to end up playing some level of European football next season, and so squad rotation will once again become a concern. And even without that, the fact remains that Di María — in theory, and in decent form — is arguably an upgrade on any of them.
Out on the left, while Ashley Young has done admirably this season to drag himself out of the United scrapheap, there's definite space for an upgrade. Quicker, trickier and more imaginative, having (a committed and competent) Di María slicing in from the left amounts to a significantly more threatening prospect than Young, not least as it gives United the capacity to get to the byline, an option United currently lack.
Over on the right, while the cuddly Juan Mata has been winning hearts and games with his soft-shoed interpretations of the "false right-winger", again Di María provides a tempting alternative. Again he's quicker, again he's a more enterprising dribbler, and at the very least, having two outstanding options for one position is rarely a problem. And it's worth remembering, here, that while Mata's always been adorable, he hasn't always looked as assured in a United shirt as this last fortnight. Nor has he always been playing against such generous full backs.
Perhaps the most interesting option, though, would be Di María playing in Fellaini's spot. The big Belgian's brand of elbow-powered bustling and chest-like-a-foot control has been entertaining and effective, particularly against the stronger teams, and like Young he's managed to move himself from the fringes to the centre of the squad. But before the Liverpool game, Van Gaal told manutd.com that "[Fellaini] is a player that gives a solution for beating the pressing of the opponents," which sounds like a reference to the out-ball that he allows United's defenders to take, the clip to chest or head.
Against teams that either won't or can't press United, however, that attribute becomes less important. United, by virtue of who they are, spend a lot of time playing teams who sit relatively deep and focus on defence; in such circumstances, there is an argument that the most advanced player in that midfield three needs to be a more proactive, attacking, creative option. One who can carry the ball at pace, beat a man, and play a pass. Real Madrid had a player called Ángel Di María who was perfect in that kind of role, though United haven't seen much of him yet.
Which is, of course, the rub. If United were playing tomorrow then picking Di María above any of those three would be folly (here Van Gaal silently gives thanks for that stupid red card against Arsenal). His form is in a miserable place, and while he keeps trying things with the ball, he's demonstrating little interest in helping without it. It always seems unfair to take moments of high comedy as symbolic — let he who has never accidentally kneed themselves in the face cast the first stone — but the moment he caught the ball almost a yard inside the touch against Liverpool seemed to sum it all up. Everything's out of kilter, and it's a matter of feet, not inches.
Ultimately, it depends what the problem is. If Di María's just struggling with a particularly potent cocktail of normal footballing misery — poor form; homesickness; an inconvenient burglary; adjustments to a new country, league and language — then the club has no reason not to try to solve that, because when he's good, he's brilliant. After he spent some of the season messing around as a striker, he now has the system. A proper winger, a false one, or a dynamic central presence: at his best, at anything approaching his best, he could almost choose his favourite. And you suspect he'll get chances between now and the end of the season, though maybe from the bench.
If, on the other hand, his heart's in Madrid, his head's in Paris, and he's been calling his manager an arsehole, then he needs to be bounced on as soon as possible. There's room for a world-class player to slot into United's attack, and if Di María's not bothered about becoming that player, then United have no reason to indulge him further than the next transfer window, whatever that might do to Ed Woodward's delicate sensibilities. This team is primed for somebody to step up and be brilliant, and United are in the odd, privileged position of being a club that can afford to waste money, but can't afford to waste time.