Angel Di Maria, the 29-year-old winger from Paris Saint-Germain, will be the first to admit he did not have the best season last year. After Unai Emery arrived from Sevilla last summer, the Argentine found it difficult to communicate with his manager and fully understand what it was he wanted from him on the pitch.
“At first, I didn't quite understand what the coach was asking me,” Di Maria told France’s Le Parisien last week. “Then we gradually got to know each other, and I think people have seen the change in the last few months. I hope I can reproduce that this year."
Emery is a manager who has a distinct philosophy, often asking his midfielders to exploit space and press–and if you’re a winger, you better be able to do it all, offensively and defensively while being extremely disciplined. And for Di Maria, nicknamed el fideo (the noodle)due to his slender physique and a gift for flexible creativity, this was always going to be a challenge. As talented as he is, Di Maria’s versatility is also his Achilles' heel, as when he is on the pitch, he lives for improvisation. That is what Emery has to unlock this year: how to get the best out of Di Maria, and at the same time keep the defensive shape for which his teams are known.
This is a problem Emery has to fix for the entire club, who lost its grasp on the Ligue 1 title to Monaco and faced an embarrassing Champions League exit to Barcelona after a running out to a 4-0 lead in a dominant first leg. Di Maria scored a brace that night, and all seemed well, until the Catalan club demolished PSG 6-1 at Camp Nou two weeks later.
After a disappointing campaign, Di Maria’s problems didn’t leave him when the season ended. Last month, the former Real Madrid forward admitted to two counts of tax fraud that amassed nearly 1.3 million euros ($1.4 million) during his time in Spain five years ago.
His lawyer accepted both counts, relating to fraud that was committed in 2012 and 2013. As a result for paying the amount, it's understood he would not serve any prison time, as sentences of less than two years for first-time offenders are usually suspended in Spain.
After a rough period of financial and personal obstacles, Di Maria is ready for what the future may bring and what he can achieve on his third season with PSG.
“I’m extremely happy in Paris, my family is very happy,” he told SI.com this week. “And honestly, to me that’s the most important thing. My relationship with Unai Emery is really good and all I just want to do my best for the team, give it my all and win titles.”
Currently in the United States, as part of PSG’s summer tour in the International Championship Cup, Di Maria seems relaxed, but cautious.
When speaking, there is a sense that he is holding back, being very careful about his words and not wanting to say anything out of context. When asked about Argentina, for example, and the appointment of Jorge Sampaoli and what it can mean for next year’s World Cup, he politely declines to say anything.
Sampaoli is known for being a comprehensive researcher of the opposition, looking to decipher anything that a team may give away in order to get a winning edge. So perhaps Di Maria is wary of this, acting as if he himself was the opposition, and not wanting to annoy the man who holds his World Cup fate in his hands.
Shortly after Sampaoli was appointed, Argentina faced Brazil in Australia, and Di Maria, who started, wanted to make a quick impression in the first five minutes of the match. After a one-two with Paulo Dybala, Di Maria sprinted from the halfway line and in the blink of an eye, he was in the box, only to be denied by the post. It was his way of telling the boss, “don’t you dare forget about me.” Just before halftime, he gave him another reminder by setting up the only goal in the match with a delightful cross in the box for a header off the post that was eventually put home by Gabriel Mercado.
Di Maria’s relationship with Brazil–Argentina’s biggest rival–is a complicated one, as many members of the Selecao are also his PSG teammates. And he seems extremely happy to receive the help of one particular Brazilian who recently joined the club.
“Throughout his career, Dani Alves has shown everything: the quality, the results, the titles,” he says. “He is a winner, pure and simple, and there is no doubt he will give something extra to the team, and that’s the extra we need. And the great thing is that every time a high-quality player comes to the club, everybody else ups their game. So this is exactly what’s happening with Dani’s arrival.”
When asked about Neymar–as recent rumors suggest he is prepared to leave Barcelona for PSG–and his thoughts on playing alongside the star forward, Di Maria is extremely diplomatic.
“That is all up to Unai and the staff, nothing to do with the players, myself included. Any player that comes to the club, no matter who he is, will be received the same way, as ultimately this is about Paris Saint-Germain. This is a big club that is looking to win titles, so we have a lot of many important players, but whoever comes will be welcomed with open arms.”
For every player, the season that precedes the World Cup is incredibly important as they all hope for a rise in form without injuries, but for Di Maria, this is also an opportunity to help those at the Parc des Princes stadium rejoice again.