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Real Madrid: Would it be right to sell Ángel Di María?

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On the eve of his country's World Cup final, we take a look at whether or not it could be justified to sell the man Ancelotti reportedly chose over Mesut Özil.

Matthias Hangst

Argentine midfield sensation Ángel di María is (and has been) the subject of intense media speculation over his Real Madrid future. Reports are actively linking him with transfers to numerous clubs with Manchester United rumours picking up steam lately. AS Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal, and Manchester City – among others – have also been touted as potential destinations to varying degrees. The seeming lack of progress in salary negotiations between the club and the player – whose participation in the World Cup probably complicated the ability of both parties to enter talks – fuel premonitions that the best player in Europe’s biggest club match is set to depart his home of four years.

The possibility, however slim and questionable, of di María’s sale provides food for thought in terms of the logic and rationale behind such a move. Under which conditions does it make sense (if it ever does)? The continental assist chart topper (give or take a couple national leagues) completed a historic and (insert appropriate superlative here) season in May. Everything just seemed to "click" into place for el Fideo who was behind much of the many good things about the team’s performances. The positional adjustment (as a result of squad constraints) Ancelotti made to bring di María into a left midfield role is oft used to explicate his astounding 2013/14 form. While his suitability for the position proved perfect, it is a slight disservice to his work earlier during the season to associate all the positives with the switch.

Regardless of why or how, the main point is uncontested: di María had a great year (and is an integral part of the team’s backbone) and therefore shouldn’t be sold. Or should he? The near-confirmed acquisition of Toni Kroos leads some to suggest Real Madrid will continue their stalled transition to a more possession-based style – also presumed to be Ancelotti and the club’s vision. It is proposed that such a style isn’t optimized by the Argentine’s profile and "unorthodox" midfield play. If the premise is accepted as valid, the necessity of the player decreases (should his compensation demands be misaligned with a substitute role as he is unlikely to displace Bale in the wing) and his significant market value becomes an opportunity cost to the club. In this scenario, discounting the option of forcing the player to honor his current contract due to the messy situation which could ensue, selling di María is arguably the best option.

All the above only works if we operate under the two stated primary assumptions: A) Kroos will be bought to move to a possession style, and B) Di María is not the most effective choice in the aforementioned set-up. The tactical merits of implementing a system focused on control thru ball retention are plenty. If supported by an adaptable philosophy and a varied assortment of "dynamic" players then it can be successful. It is viable as long as fidelity is to the purpose and not the method. It could perhaps be more accurately described as a possession-first system. On this basis, it is plausible that assumption A is true.

The implications of the second assumption must be analyzed further. Why is di María not the most effective choice? The issue could be reduced to its surface level by examining the player and his alternatives’ possession statistics (see table below). In this regard, it is clear #22’s game isn’t very conducive, comparative to Kroos, Modrić, and Khedira, to maintaining possession – passing and losing the ball (take-ons) at worse rates. Ignoring doubts over the objective worth of the selected statistics (they aren’t exhaustive and do not account for environmental factors) before interpretation, it can be concluded assumption B is also plausible. However, it is important to look at the figures contextually. The statistics do not translate literally because having a worse passing rate does not (it could but it can’t be certain without further investigation) mean di María is a worse passer per se. It could mean he is attempting harder passes, playing in zones where his teammates do not create as many lanes or any number of things. The general opinion leans towards the former given his style of play (penetrative, adventurous, risk-taking).

The million dollar question then becomes is di María’s style of play (leaving aside the coaching aspect for purposes of argument) the most effective for possession football? Whilst the evidence indicates that having him in the team does not promote ball retention, the consequent "imbalance" his presence generates is usually correlated with high offensive aggressiveness which prevents the possession from becoming redundant. From that view, the answer could legitimately be yes and selling him would be illogical.

Statistics Table (data retrieved from Squawka):
Player (2013/14 League) Di María Modrić Kroos Khedira
Pass Completion 82% 90% 92% 86%
Successful Take-Ons 49% 71% 86% 64%