Amid rumours of an excitingly large bid from Paris Saint-Germain, we present to you the sight of the Busby Babe arguing with itself about whether Manchester United should sell Angel di Maria. Because obviously they should. And obviously they shouldn't.
United absolutely MUST sell
Right at the top, transfer shopping is brilliant. A club like Manchester United, haunching with sponsor money and dripping with glamour, can buy almost anything they want, players specifically designed to address the holes in their squad. A goalscoring wide forward who takes freekicks, wins titles, adores the manager and is still only 21? Fine. A six foot international right back who can play all across the back line but mostly loves galloping forward? Sorted.
Okay, let's try something difficult. How about ... how about a genuine superstar who has just been man of the match in the Champions League final; who has helped drag his country to the World Cup final and might have made the difference there had he not been injured; who is only leaving Real Madrid because Real Madrid are weird; who is committed, hyperactive and, in most of the relevant and important ways, brilliant?
No problem! That'll be, er, quite a lot of money.
A year on, and Angel di Maria is still all of those things, of course. In theory. But while the transfer market can deliver up a player to this or that specification, what they can't do is make that player play. That depends on a contextual cocktail: the manager, the environment, the culture, the weather, the food, the language, the appearance of masked burglars at the window of a house. That last one might be specific to Di Maria. But so, too, is the fact that he didn't really want to come Manchester United in the first place: in a delicate piece of irony, he's only in Manchester rather than Paris because of the Financial Fair Play rules imposed by Michel Platini, a man whose presence has generally worked out quite well for PSG.
Quite what's going on in Di Maria's head is, of course, unknown to those of us cursed to struggle through life without psychic powers. But it seems unarguable that something is, and that that something isn't what a football club would want. Injuries won't have helped, and neither will Louis van Gaal's inability to decide on a formation and Di Maria's place within that formation. But even taking all that into account, Old Trafford hasn't seen a less-arsed, less-focused, less-up-for-it footballer since ... well, who? Jordi Cruyff? At least he could blame a long paternal shadow.
Underperforming players are one thing; undercommitted players quite another. The first is a natural consequence of human existence; the second, especially when it's a player as high-profile and fundamentally important as Di Maria, can do miserable things to a squad and to a season. Once he'd lost his early form, United's best football came without him, and he was not a happy bench-warmer. Now stretch that over a season, multiply by his agent, and multiply again by Van Gaal's notoriously warm personality.
Making a mistake is absolutely fine. Not taking the opportunity to rectify that mistake is not. United did the right thing buying Di Maria: he was available, and even if he didn't quite fit into any plan, he could have been brilliant. It would be fundamentally negligent not to take advantage of the opportunity to sell him on roughly the same logic: the opportunity's there, and he's not been brilliant. Worse, he's not appeared remotely fussed about being brilliant. If PSG want him, and want to pay for him, they're welcome to him.
United absolutely MUST NOT sell
As a rule, it's not a good idea for football clubs to sell good footballers while they're still good. Practically it weakens the squad; more abstractly it sends out the wrong sort of message. We are Manchester United, it says. We can't keep the best players in the world happy and so we move them on at their request to clubs that are, by implication, better than we are.
Obviously that's not always possible. Sometimes Cristiano Ronaldo really, really, really, really, really wants to go to Madrid and all you can do is wave him off with one hand while counting the money with the other. But in general, a player should only leave Manchester United once Manchester United have done with them. That's the whole point of being a massive superclub, after all; no point having all the weight and failing to throw it around.
When it comes to Di Maria, then, he should only be allowed to leave for Paris (or wherever) if there's absolutely nothing left for him here. If the club's hierarchy of decision-makers and coaches are convinced that they can't do anything else with him, that his spirit's too broken and his heart's too elsewhere to ever be a success at Old Trafford, then that's the right call. But only if that.
So, that? Surely not. Look back at last season and it's a wonder that anybody played well at any point, let alone that United managed, by the finest of margins, to nab fourth place. Formations changed, players fell apart, and Van Gaal tore at remarkable speed through one plan after another, all the while pursuing a philosophy that was new to most of the players under his control. Di Maria spent time on the wing, time in midfield, time up front and time on the treatment table.
In essence, all players need three things before they can be confidently written and flogged off. They need a settled team to play in, they need a decent run of games in that team, and they need to stay fit, in both body and mind. Di Maria had none of that last season — here we pause to recall that his family had been in the country a few months when they felt they had to flee their home — yet remains arguably the most talented member of the squad and, in theory, both absolutely brilliant and absolutely suited to the Premier League.
Part of the problem is, perhaps, that he's a footballer that looks absolutely miserable when he's out of form. Ambitious players often do: trying something difficult is, well, difficult, even in good form; in bad, that fifty yard curving cross between fullback and centrehalf can end up looking positively Bebe-esque in execution. Yet even when he was playing badly, and even when he was incapable of chasing back, he was trying things. Looking for the path to goal, trying to encourage the game along that path. There's a moral courage to that, even if it's followed by the ball smacking into a defender's face, the opposition breaking, and Di Maria standing around with his hands on his hips.
In conclusion, selling Di Maria at this point would be a waste. Not just of money; that's a problem for the Glazers. A waste of opportunity. United have spent this summer setting a platform for what will, if all goes well, be a smoother and more settled start to the season. The club have seen that Di Maria isn't reliable when things are a mess; they haven't seen how he is when they aren't. It surely cannot be beyond the wit of Van Gaal, his coaches and the rest of the squad to ensure that being a fantastic footballer and playing for Manchester United isn't such an appalling combination of circumstances. For it would be a miserable surrender if he was sent on before being given the best possible chance to play fantastically for Manchester United.