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VIDEO: The Reinvention Of Ángel Di María

How Carlo Ancelotti successfully transformed Di María from a tricky winger to an all-action midfielder.

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The day is November 15, 2013. You are the manager of Real Madrid. Your side has sustained losses to Atlético Madrid and FC Barcelona but has shown considerable promise after significant squad turnover from the previous season. You recently crushed Sevilla 7-3 and just beat Real Sociedad 5-1 four days prior. But 24 hours later, central midfielder Sami Khedira, a crucial cog in your new side, goes down with a ligament rupture. There is no direct replacement. What do you do?

This was the predicament that Carlo Ancelotti faced in his first season as Real Madrid manager. He could’ve moved away from his 4-3-3 or adapted attacking midfielder Isco to a deeper role, but neither option seemed appealing at the time. Instead, he came up with an ingenious solution. Ancelotti looked at winger Ángel Di María’s stint in a more central role with the Argentina national team, and decided that he could play full-time as a left central midfielder.

Many people had their doubts. How would such a talented attacking player deal with increased defensive duties? Wouldn’t this limit what Di María was effective at?

All those questions were answered after a few weeks, as Di María showed an excellent attitude and work-rate in central midfield. Furthermore, his stamina and athleticism actually ended up providing Real Madrid with greater defensive stability than before. Soon after Ancelotti moved the Argentinian to a new role, Madrid managed a club record of eight clean sheets in row.

Somehow, Di María’s new defensive duties didn’t appear to hamper his offensive contributions. His attacking numbers actually got better when compared to the last three seasons. He averaged 3.1 key passes per 90 minutes across La Liga and the Champions League, which was more than half a key pass better than his 3 previous seasons combined. Additionally, he managed a career-high 22 assists - another personal best.

So, how in the world was this possible? To understand, you must look at the way Di María affected Real Madrid’s tactical balance.

When Cristiano Ronaldo came to the Bernabéu in 2009, he demanded total freedom to move wherever his killer instinct took him. As he steadily became a more lethal goal scorer, he more frequently drifted into central areas and moved inside the box to make use of his finishing skills. This was a massive net-positive offensively. Marcelo was more than capable of handling the left flank on his own and he often got help from the unselfish Benzema, while Ronaldo scored 50+ goals a season. However, there were downsides defensively, as Real Madrid’s left-wing was vulnerable to counter attacks whenever the team lost the ball.

Di María’s new position in midfield solved those problems. Being a natural left-footed winger, he was more than comfortable shifting wide whenever Ronaldo moved inwards. Not only did this provide consistent protection on the left-wing, but it enabled Di María to maintain his offensive efficiency. He replaced his lack of through balls with crossing. In the 2013/14 seasons, he created half of his 3.1 key passes p90 from crosses - that was more than double his figure of 0.68 in the three seasons prior.

Placing Di María’s attacking threat in a deeper position also gave the team a certain level of unpredictability. Di María’s directness and dribbling skills allowed him to collapse defensive lines and create something out of nothing when Real Madrid were struggling as a collective.

But this came at a cost. The main weakness of Ancelotti’s reinvention, was that his team lost a little bit of control. Di María only averaged a passing accuracy of 82% in La Liga, which did not compare favorably to Luka Modric’s 90%, Xabi Alonso’s 88%, and Khedira’s 87%.

Nevertheless, most Real Madrid fans would agree that that was a more than acceptable trade-off given all the positive things Di María brought to the table. This was never more apparent than in the biggest game of the 13/14 season - the Champions League Final. In extra time, with the score all square, Di María picked up the ball on the left-wing, eviscerated three defenders, and watched as his saved shot was put into the back of the net by Gareth Bale.

Sadly, it was the last time Madridistas would see the mercurial Argentinian in a white shirt. A dispute over a pay raise and the pursuit of Colombian superstar James Rodríguez, saw Di María move to Manchester United for a fee of 75 million euros. Real Madrid recovered from the loss quickly and went on to win three more Champions League titles, but they have not yet found a way to replace Di María’s tactical flexibility and X-factor.

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