“Every time he gets on the ball it comes alive. The game just looks quicker when he’s on it.” Radamel Falcao might have been the focus of attention in the build-up but Gary Neville’s assessment of the game itself was spot on. It was Angel di Maria who stole the show against Queens Park Rangers.
It should have been obvious from the moment he opened the scoring with a whipped cross that eluded everyone inside the QPR area to find the far corner. By the time his mishit shot found Juan Mata unmarked for the fourth, nobody could be in any doubt. Scoring from crosses, crossing from shots. Di Maria had announced himself as the man to make things happen at Old Trafford.
It was the first half, in particular, that showcased the best of the talents that saw Manchester United break the British transfer record to bring Di Maria to the club last month. In addition to the undoubted quality in possession, the harrying and pressing of opponents was remarkable – if only as a contrast to what United fans have had to become used to in recent times.
There was an intensity to his game that was like oxygen to the starved Old Trafford crowd. And yet, his work simply suffocated the visitors, winning possession of the ball 12 times - more than any other player in a red shirt. “This is what United have missed in the last 12 months,” purred Neville from the commentary box. Di Maria set the tempo.
Indeed, it was wholly appropriate that Sky Sports used the occasion to bring back Player Cam. After all, the Argentine midfielder was so often at the heart of the action during the crucial period when the game was decided. Not only did he have more touches (65) than anyone else in the opening 45 minutes but more often than not they were effective touches too.
Di Maria completed the most passes in the opposition half before the break – 30 of them. By way of comparison, QPR as a team only managed 46. He also put in twice as many crosses as anyone else, seemingly on a one-man mission to rehabilitate this method as a route to goal after the poor PR it received during the David Moyes era. But most of all, he was running with the ball.
“They’d always been passing it but what they didn’t have was that change of pace to the attack,” said Neville. “What they’ve got now is that change of pace.” That was never more obvious than for Ander Herrera’s goal that doubled the lead and all but ended what passed for QPR’s ambition to get anything from the game.
Carrying the ball quickly up the field, Di Maria turned defence into attack before picking an intelligent pass to set up Wayne Rooney for the chance. His effort was blocked but Herrera made no mistake. “He should head over to Di Maria,” said Neville. “It was his work. He’s been the star of this first half.”
Di Maria’s dribble practically demanded the run from Rooney and the theory that good players make other good players better was being both tested and proven before our eyes. Many have suggested that players of pace could bring the best out of Juan Mata too, but few could have expected such emphatic proof so quickly - the Spaniard revelling in the movement around him.
Robin van Persie is another likely to relish having Di Maria for company, particularly if the new arrival can produce the sort of service that saw him flick the ball in the Dutchman’s direction with the outside of his boot to set up a volleyed second-half chance. The vision to see it and the talent to execute it was stunning. Nobody created more goalscoring chances (4) than Di Maria.
With the match won, he eased off a little in the second half – making just eight high-intensity sprints after producing 23 of them before the interval – and was withdrawn with 10 minutes remaining. But the point had been made and with the Premier League tracking data also showing that Herrera, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo covered the most ground, this feels like a fresh United.
“He’s changed the game,” concluded Neville in announcing Di Maria as the winner of the man of the match award. “His goal and his assist. The little reverse pass to Rooney and then involved for the fourth. I don’t think any football team can play without pace. He’s just brought a real change of pace and a speed to the attack.” Falcao’s moment will come. But this was Di Maria’s day.