The Dirty Delight of Di Maria

Soccer Features
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For a player named Angel, Di Maria soils his wings frequently. If angels sing choruses and float in clouds, then Di Maria would be better served by the first name Uriel, the sword-wielding archangel. In the modern game, where defense reigns and tackles widely outnumber goals, Di Maria both creates and destroys, and often destroys to create. Neither a midfielder nor a forward, neither a holding mid nor a winger, he darts between categories as he sprints through defenders. Still, you can see divine greatness between the lines.

Some players such as Messi glide along the pitch, ice skating around defenders. Di Maria chugs along like an ostrich with the engine of a locomotive. He lacks a lightning first step, but his two-step is deadly. Momentum once gained, he seldom loses it. He shimmies from left to right, he waits for the last minute before tapping ball to the other side, and his long legs leave defenders exasperated. His track normally leads to the 18 yard box, where a left-footed cross will find a teammate’s head or foot or even chest.

Nobody knows his position. For several years at Madrid, Jose Mourinho parked him wide. He ran and ran and crossed, but inevitably cut inside. The 18-yard box is his siren, calling to him, a magnet that draws him in. Like a madman hopping into a barrel near a waterfall, he lowers his head and runs at three defenders, daring them to stick in a leg. His feints and step-overs do not mesmerize like the old Ronaldo’s, but rather sew confusion and doubt. He slithers at defenders like a snake, threatening to go right or left, all at once. Flat-footed, they seldom guess correctly. Because speed is his ally, sloth is his tool of deception. Defenders stagger over their own feet when Di Maria slows down or stops. They expect the worst, not stasis.

Both for la seleccion and at Real Madrid under Ancellotti, he moved to a foreign land: central midfielder. His pointed feet turned to daggers, his tackling increased, and he thrived. He attacks opposing midfielders as if in a street fight, using every pound of his small but tall frame. Like a defense man in hockey, he recklessly throws around his hips and shoulders, hoping to pry the ball loose. He rarely goes to ground for a tackle, and never stops running. Oh, and he still has energy left over to get forward. In the 2014 Champions League final, his dramatic dribbling burst and deflected shot in extra time led to Gareth Bale’s winning goal.

Different players inject unique rhythms into their team. A classy central defender like Paolo Maldini offers assurances and can turn chaos into a smooth transition. He intercepts a pass in his own box and in one touch the ball flies out wide to a winger. He is the basso continuo of a baroque composition. Conversely, Di Maria is the Thelonious Monk of a bebop ensemble, just as likely to tickle the ivories in the background as go off on a spontaneous and virtuoso solo. Even when he misses a key, he keeps moving, planning, conspiring, creating. He adds the needed chaos to structure.

Of course, Di Maria goes to ground often, but is no diver. His lanky legs, his skinny frame, his fearlessness in the dribble, they combine to force defenders upon him in packs. He never repels blows, but instead goes limp and loosens his joints as if caught in an undertow. As he falls, he pins his elbows to sides but raises his hands and forearms upward and outward; he does so not to brace himself, but to plan his referee protest in advance. He rarely gets injured, but that’s a testament to the durability of rubber as compared to steel.

His goals, more common than a shooting star but rarer than a comet, are often geometrically brilliant. He sees the field and goal from the ball’s perspective, not yours nor his own. He often dribbles a defender into backtracking and then, just inside the 18 yard box, cuts inside and curls a shot over the keeper and to the far post. On more than one occasion, he has raced to the end line and head-faked a goalie into prematurely diving forwards to stop a cross that is never crossed. He then slots the ball inside the near post of the empty goal, darting to the corner flag and not pausing to laugh at the fool rolling on the ground.

He plays defense. His gait is unnerving. He prefers to pass in the final third. One must ask: is Di Maria just a really fast Dirk Kuyt? No. Kuyt’s industry is what makes Kuyt Kuyt. Di Maria’s industry is what reminds us he is mortal, not some celestial being sent down from above.

Elliott writes about soccer at Futfanatico.com. He is the author of An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish, available on Amazon and at iTunes.