Angel Di Maria was man of the match in the Champions League final. Last season he was the tactical key to Real Madrid, adjusting his game so that, rather than playing as a winger, he dropped deeper and operated on the left side of a midfield three.
There had been rumours he would be sold, but he had the professionalism and lack of ego to adjust his natural game to become essential to how the team played.
This is the remorseless logic of Real Madrid. Gratitude has never been a reason for a club to hold on to a player once his usefulness has expired—and Di Maria, probably, would be frustrated to stay at the Bernabeu if he wasn’t playing regularly—but the decision to dispose of him is a tremendous gamble, one that recalls probably the worst personnel decision taken by a major side in the past 20 years.
Claude Makelele was never truly valued by Real Madrid until he was gone. He had helped them to two league titles and a Champions League but remained on a relatively low salary.
When he asked for a raise in the summer of 2003—to take him to half of what Zinedine Zidane was earning—the club’s president, Florentino Perez, set on his galacticos policy, refused him and he was sold to Chelsea.
Perez was quoted as saying in a report by Richard Stevens of The Guardian:
He wasn't a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres.
Younger players will arrive who will cause Makelele to be forgotten.
But Makelele wasn’t forgotten. Rather his absence became the emblem of the folly of the policy. As Zidane asked in a report by the Daily Mail: “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”
In big matches, Real simply couldn’t get the ball to give it to their stars. It wasn’t until this May, 12 years after their previous success, that they finally won the Champions League again.
Di Maria was vital to that triumph, not only in the final, but also in the semi, when Real played a canny counter-attacking game to beat Bayern Munich. He is a master at leading a break, at judging when to carry the ball and when to release it.
He pulled wide when Cristiano Ronaldo went inside. He shuttled to provide the link between the midfield of Xabi Alonso (or Sami Khedira in the final) and Luka Modric and the forward line.
He sat in when Marcelo overlapped him from full-back (the consequences of what happens when a midfielder doesn’t adequately do that were shown in Brazil’s defeat to Germany in the World Cup semi-final, when Thomas Muller frolicked in the space behind the full-back). Tactically, he was probably the most important player in the side.
Real’s summer acquisitions, James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos, are, undeniably, very fine players. The issue is where they fit.
Against Sevilla, Rodriguez seemed to be trying to play both as a central creator and in Di Maria’s role, an awkward hybrid in which he didn’t seem especially comfortable.
Kroos can play deep, but if he is paired with Luka Modric, there is no ball-winner in the Real midfield—which is not a problem against Sevilla, but may be against Barcelona or Atletico Madrid or in the Champions League.
It wouldn’t be quite as flaky as the post-Makelele 2003 side, but there would remain the problem of linking midfield and attack: Rodriguez is not a shuttling player.
And that’s without even mentioning the difficulty of keeping players who are out of the side happy. As well as Di Maria, Real couldn’t fit Xabi Alonso, Khedira, Isco or Asier Illarramendi into their line-up.
That means, surely, at least one and possibly two sales. And if one of the players to go is the unglamorous but effective Di Maria, it’s hard not to wonder whether Real haven’t repeated the error of a decade ago, selling off the engine to add another layer of gold.