While 2019 may have seen Argentina’s wait for a senior trophy extend wearily into a 27th year Lionel Scaloni’s new look side followed up their Copa América semi-final defeat to Brazil with a seven-match unbeaten run. The new generation of players provided fresh reason for optimism and yet the Albiceleste’s inexperienced coach is still to find his ideal eleven. When World Cup qualification does eventually get underway there remains competition for places and although Ángel Di María hasn’t featured since last July’s Copa, El Fideo has arguably given Scaloni reason to think again.
Not that there are many campaigning for Di María’s return in Argentina. One of the most criticised members of the ‘so close’ generation, few would have complained if the 32-year-old never featured again for the national team after the calamity in Russia under Jorge Sampaoli.
Not that Di María was any more responsible than numerous teammates but when Lionel Scaloni took charge in the aftermath a new era was ushered in and as the familiar faces from the previous four years were replaced it was supposed that the 2019 Copa América would be a final farewell for the few that remained.
Captain Lionel Messi of course the exception and while the mercurial number ten’s status in the starting eleven is understandably secure as ever, Scaloni is still looking for the pieces to slot in around Messi. Lautaro Martínez and Sergio Agüero compete for the number nine role but under the assumption that playing both against anything other than weak opposition would be a tad too bold, it leaves opportunities in support.
Several younger options have been utilised in the past year desperate to make a spot on the left their own but Di María’s statistics for Paris Saint-Germain this season are hard to ignore. Eight goals and fourteen assists, double the amount of the next best in Ligue 1, and creatively only bettered by Jadon Sancho, Kevin de Bruyne and Thomas Müller across Europe’s top five leagues.
“Based on form, I am surprised Argentina are not doing everything to get him back involved,” ESPN’s Ligue 1 expert Jonathan Johnson tells Golazo.
“Statistically excellent and one of [Thomas] Tuchel’s most consistent performers, the belief in France is that he is being overlooked by Scaloni as part of the Albiceleste overhaul. Considering his performances at the highest level, Di María still has something to offer his country.”
Despite racking up over 100 appearances for Argentina during an era which has witnessed three agonising consecutive final defeats at major tournaments, Di María is not alone in being accused of failing to produce his club form when pulling on the albiceleste shirt.
For all the Rosario Central product’s pace and incisiveness, Di María’s critics would point to his lack of awareness and frustrating tendency to select the wrong option at critical moments. A far cry from the player in Paris who has produced a further four assists in seven Champions League appearances this season and averages three key passes per 90 minutes in Ligue 1. So what is the root of this distinction?
“I think the main reason for his good form under Tuchel is the fact that he feels needed at PSG. Tuchel made it very clear, very early that he was looking forward to working together and Di María responded well to that desire,” Johnson explains.
“Add to that the fact that Di María and his family have settled well in Paris and it has created a positive atmosphere. Contrast how he performs under Tuchel to how he struggled under somebody like Emery and it is clear that he has the right conditions to succeed at present.
“The problem for Di Maria, like many others, comes from the pressure that is part of playing for Argentina. It is clear to see how Di María’s happiness enables him to be so productive with PSG and if he felt that way playing for his country, it might be a similar story. However, with each competition that passes without success, the pressure appears to grow greater and greater. As an outsider to Di Maria’s national team situation, it appears to be rooted in the daunting task that is bringing success to the Albiceleste.”
A familiar charge levelled at many of Di María’s generation and one which at this advanced stage of the players career may never be resolved. Building for the future as Scaloni appears to be doing is the correct course of action but in the short term it could be argued that none of the fresh options stack up against El Fideo.
Positionally Di María offers a versatility hugely valuable within a squad and although his heat map in Ligue 1 this season (above) shows an inclination to play off the right wing cutting inside onto his left foot, a position reserved for Lionel Messi in an Argentina shirt, the pacy wideman has operated largely on the opposite flank during his career.
Operating centrally or on the left allow Di María to occupy any of the attacking positions across a 4-2-3-1 behind the lone striker while a deeper midfield role remains an option. Former Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella saw the value of utilising Di María’s dynamism and boundless energy in a 4-3-3 and was responsible for the player’s best spell for the national team. Among the abundance of ‘what-ifs’ for this generation, Di María’s thigh injury which cut short his 2014 World Cup during the quarter-final win over Belgium ranks high and undoubtedly impacted the Albiceleste’s title hopes in Brazil.
In Di María’s international absence Lionel Scaloni has tested a number of alternatives for the positions either on the left or behind the striker but none can compete with the PSG star’s statistics this season.
Lucas Ocampos finished 2019 in pole position to fill the role on the left after impressing in the 2-2 draw with Germany and the thrashing of Ecuador in October and is the only player to have scored more than Di María domestically this season. The 25-year-old’s ten-goal haul for Sevilla has been a deserved reward for a seamless transition to La Liga but in all other metrics, Ocampos trails Di María.
Creatively none have come close. Serie A assist king Alejandro Gómez has created ten goals for Atalanta, reaching double figures for the fourth consecutive season, but still fails to keep pace with Di María this term, while none of the other options manage even half of the 32-year-old’s impressive tally of 14.