For one hour, three minutes and 52 seconds, dimaria angel he was the best player in the world.
This was the same day as the 35-year-old man Lionel Messi I would kiss the World cup trophy to seal his place as the greatest footballer of all time, and his historic performance would deserve it. kylian mbappethe outstanding player of the tournament, he would score three goals after the 80th minute and would not leave a crumb of doubt about who will take over when Messi is gone.
But for the first hour of the match, the big names were second best. It was ArgentinaThe other aging winger, not Messi, who took the first penalty and scored the second goal, leading his team to a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 lead. The game went through him like a high voltage current. France he couldn’t escape this thin, slippery electric eel of a man.
It was, without a doubt, the final for Ángel Di María.
And then he went out.
Maybe that didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Of all Di María’s prodigious gifts, the greatest seems to be that of not being appreciated.
It’s a little hard to pin down, to be fair. His smoldering coal eyes, sharp cheekbones, and pixie ears protruding from an impossibly tall face make him look like an El Greco study of Franz Kafka, and his game is so strange and brilliant as to lead you to hope. . He’s a weird kind of star in that, in a way, he’s never been a star at all.
For one thing, he doesn’t have a position. Or she has three of them. Over the past 15 years, Di María has played both on the wings and in attacking midfield for some of the best teams in the world and was a natural where his team needed him.
At the start of this World Cup, as he had done in the Argentina qualifying rounds, Di María lined up to Messi’s right. The broad threat kept defenses honest. He tries to push Messi into right half space and Di Maria will sneak in from behind and hit you on the wing. He tried to track down Di Maria and Messi would shake free between the lines.
It had been working for them for the last year or so. Di María was playing on the right side when he squirted from behind BrazilMessi’s back line and scored the only goal in last year’s Copa América final, earning Argentina the first senior international trophy of Messi’s career.
But in this World Cup, playing on the right felt like a waste of Di Maria’s talent.
Messi, a strongly left-footed midfielder, likes dribble from right to left and look for killer diagonals to the opposite wing.
When the left midfielder Young Jealous he was in shape, he could run towards those balls while Di María stayed on the right. But when Lo Celso tore a hamstring a few weeks before the tournament, Lionel Scaloni never replaced him. Argentina played without a left winger, even when Messi clearly could have used one, even when Di María was there.
Against France in the World Cup final, that finally changed. Di María switched to the left flank and Argentina, who had sleepwalked for most of the tournament as a team that could become good any time they had a little more yerba mate, ignited.
For over an hour, they were untouchable.
It was immediately obvious what the team had been missing. In the 12th minute, when Messi dribbled to his left for a pass, he didn’t have to wait for his left-back to run down an empty flank. Di María was already high and wide to receive a diagonal behind the defense.
Di Maria knew exactly what she was supposed to do next. He has been playing with Messi since 2008 (year ran into a pass from Messi to score the goal which earned Argentina an Olympic gold medal).
Without thinking about it, he settled the ball in his left foot, waited a second for Messi’s favorite late arrival race, then clipped a pass to the penalty spot. Just a sliding clearance for Aurelien Tchouameni saved it from becoming a Messi signature goal.
Two minutes later, when a dribble from Di María drew the France half to his flank, Messi waved the ball into midfield and calmly waited as Di María moved around. Adrian Rabiot and flicked a pass between two defenders with the outside of his boot.
Once again, Di María instinctively knew what would happen next, so he turned and ran into the box, where he could have scored had Messi not missed the return pass.
Very soon, Argentina was throwing almost anything to the left flank, trusting Di María to sort it out.
At one point, Messi drove up the middle and used his forgotten right foot to flick a ball in Di Maria’s general direction, which is the highest compliment you can give a pass catcher. On another occasion, he tried to use his right hand to throw a chest-high ball back over his shoulder, without looking, to put Di Maria behind him. (Okay okay, that He is as confident as Messi gets.)
The “fuck it, Di María is out there somewhere” tactic is how Julián Álvarez helped set up Argentina’s first goal…
Ousmane Dembele fouled Ángel Di María as Lionel Messi gave Argentina the lead from the penalty spot 👀
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) December 18, 2022
…and, with a little more planning, his second…
A supreme quality goal from Argentina 🇦🇷🙌 pic.twitter.com/BwixLkURWV
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 18, 2022
IRREAL team goal 🤤
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) December 18, 2022
But it wasn’t just Di María’s brilliance on the ball that made him so essential. Playing with a true left winger reshaped the team and allowed Alexis McAllister to shine between the lines as a left attacking midfielder.
When I wasn’t dribbling in circles Jules Konde, Di María launched himself to cut the passing lanes of the right side. That freed up Mac Allister behind him to score. antoine griezmanwhose floating role in midfield had been key to France’s success throughout the tournament.
Without those two players, France was pure Jacques Tati slapstick on the ball. They crawled past the hour mark without a shot, the second-worst start by any team at this World Cup (only Costa Ricawho did not shoot anything in his 7-0 humiliation against Spainhad a longer dry period).
But just when it looked like Argentina was sailing towards the trophy, Scaloni made a near-fatal mistake.
At one hour, three minutes and 52 seconds into the game, Di María left the field.
The next hour was a completely different game.
Replacing a tired 34-year-old left winger so that defender Marcos Acuna could shore up left midfield might have seemed like a smart game management move on paper, but it sent Argentina into chaos.
Take the sequence before France’s first goal. Mac Allister tore his way through midfield with an opponent at his back. Fifteen minutes earlier, he would probably have gone for a pass to Di María on the flank, but Acuña fell back on the halfway line, behind the ball. There was no way out or way forward.
Without a good possession structure on the left, Argentina was trapped against the right flank. France won the ball on that side, broke quickly and scored.
Less than two minutes later, Messi ran into a similar problem. He dribbled to the left under heavy pressure and looked to shoot the ball down the flank. This time, Acuña was off the field but too close, and did not offer Messi a passing option that he was confident of. With no Di María to throw the ball to, Messi was caught in possession and France scored again to send the game into extra time.
It wasn’t just a few awkward moments. The switch to a flat 4-4-2 changed the way Argentina worked in possession or, more often than not, didn’t work at all. Messi’s favorite diagonals dried up completely.
When Messi cut inside and looked down the left wing, he saw Acuña running to reach the play. When he did, it was usually too late.
What was supposed to be a defensive substitution ended up having the opposite effect. With Argentina suddenly uncomfortable on the ball, France found their rhythm and began to push forward. A game that had been completely one-sided turned into the complete opposite.
As for Di María, he stayed trying to encourage his team from the bench. When Messi scored in extra time, there was Di María, jumping off the bench to celebrate with him on his training bib.
As Mbappé equalized again to send the game to penalties, the camera showed Di María sobbing into his shirt.
This was not the first time he had to watch from the sidelines with the World Cup on the line. In 2014, he tore a muscle in the quarterfinals and missed the final of the Argentine tournament. “I just want to win the World Cup,” he said. he begged his coaches back then, insisting that painkillers would get him through the final. “If you call me, I’ll play until I break.”
There is no doubt that he would have done the same even now, at 34 years old. Scaloni must have wished he had left it. But this time, by the grace of Don Diego and La TotaArgentina did not need it.
An hour, three minutes and 52 seconds from Di María as the best player on the pitch — and a lifetime from Messi, the greatest of all time to do so — were enough to win the World Cup.
(Top photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)