The obvious headline for this piece would have been "How do you solve a problem like Di María?" But much as tBB likes to begin every Thursday with a hot slice of Rodgers & Hammerstein, that wouldn't have been quite right. Fixing Ángel Di María isn't the problem ...
(... though we would note here that while he obviously does need fixing, being evidently bereft of both confidence and end product, the simple fact that he was brilliant at Real Madrid and cost an awful lot of money doesn't mean he's going to be able to avoid all the normal adjustment problems that affect any footballer moving leagues, particularly one who's had to play several different positions in a team that isn't really working, and so while it's certainly frustrating to watch him labour, it's not inexplicable or inexcusable, or even totally surprising ... )
... the problem is what to do with him until he gets fixed.
Di María isn't helped by the fact that his job on the pitch is to do the difficult things — play imaginative through balls, beat defenders, create something from nothing — and, perhaps, by the fact that he doesn't look particularly elegant even when he's at his best. Dimitar Berbatov's bad games were still pleasing on the eye; a struggling Di María, all frantic gangling, looks mostly comical. And the luck isn't running for him either: his best contribution against Newcastle, a cute ball behind the defence that Wayne Rooney tucked into the net, was wrongly flagged for offside.
But still. Watching Di María against Sunderland and Newcastle (particularly the former, when he nearly went full-Bebé) was painful, and it was painful not just because he was playing badly, but because he kept being given the ball.
It is generally seen as a good thing when a player in miserable form doesn't hide. That is, when they ignore the fact that they are momentarily incapable of kicking the ball to the right place and continue as if they can. Which is good in what it says about the player: it speaks of courage; of determination; of commitment; of the capacity to front up when things aren't going well. Hiding is the coward's way.
There's an odd contradiction at the heart of this, from a fan's point of view. When it comes to the player as an individual, you absolutely want him to keep plugging away, to show character. From a team point of view, though, the suspicion remains that it might be best if they dialed everything right down and just concentrated on the simple things. Trying things, when nothing is coming off, is often worse than not trying anything at all. It's similar to the prevalent idea that players should, ideally, attempt to play through pain: yes, they have a strong, defiant character, but a footballer being brave isn't as useful as a footballer being fully fit.
At the moment Di María showing for the ball, and demanding the ball, means danger in the wrong direction. At the moment, when United give the ball to Di María there's a fair chance that they won't get it back, and a couple of Newcastle's more dangerous breaks last night came from the Argentine's misplaced passes. Luckily for United, De Gea is very good and Newcastle aren't. It's best not to wonder what might happen if he presents the ball, and space, to Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge.
In it's own way, Di María's presence in the starting line-up last night is evidence that Van Gaal, often mocked for his caution this season, is still willing to take risks. At the moment, the Argentine is a consistent disappointment and an occasional liability ... but he also has it in him to do things that no other United player can. That's perhaps more an article of faith than evidence at the moment, but there's a reason United spent as much as they did. There's a reason he was playing for Real Madrid. And there's a reason he was man of the match in the Champions League final less than a year ago.
It will be hard to blame Van Gaal if he drops him; he's been exceptionally poor, and United's upcoming fixture list is the very definition of nightmarish. It might well be safer for United to drop Di María, or at least order him to curb his instincts until his first touch is reliable again. But that rather defeats the entire point of him. United don't just need him to be brilliant on a pragmatic level (though they do, since United have to win games, not just avoid losing them). They need him to be the spark that the side is so desperately missing.
Ultimately, if Di María is excised from the starting line-up ahead of that run, then then that won't just be disappointing. It will also be, in it's own way, as safety-first a move as any back three could be. a statement that he's become too much of a gamble. And that's why it's hard as a fan not to fall down on the player's side of the argument: to feel that he should keep showing, should keep trying, even if nothing comes off. Every instinct screams that it is better to gamble on the possibility of genius, and lose, then shut the possibility down altogether. Pick him — tBB says in the knowledge that our jobs don't depend on it — and be damned.