“Every day you say, ‘Les Quatres Fantastique’”, smiled Thomas Tuchel to the gathered French journalists. “He’s one of the four, no?” Tuchel had been asked about the performance of Angel Di Maria, about how truly brilliant he has been this season. The German PSG manager is not particularly fond of the ‘Fantastic Four’ moniker that has been bestowed on his supremely talented attacking quartet. But if the press is going to use the catchy phrase, he intimated, then they shouldn’t be surprised that its adjective applied them all.
Di Maria may not live the 24/7 soap opera of Mauro Icardi, he might not be seen as some sort of decadent celebrity like Neymar and he is not a rising superstar in the mould of Kylian Mbappé. But going into the business end of this season’s Champions League, it is possible that none of them is as central to the functioning of Tuchel’s team as the Argentinian No.11.
Di Maria has been in superb form in recent weeks. His cross for 17-year-old Tanguy Kouassi’s second goal in the 4-4 draw against Amiens on Saturday was just the latest in a sequence of telling contributions in the final third. In PSG’s pulsating, end-to-end clash with Lyon last week, he scored a stunning solo goal, provided a masterful run and pass for Icardi, who was unfortunately just offside, and played the pass to set up Edinson Cavani for the Paris side’s fourth. French sports daily L’Equipe was moved to publish an article with the headline, “Angel Di Maria: Is this the best season of his career?”
But it is not just his ability on the ball and threat in the attacking areas that makes the ex-Real Madrid player so vital to Tuchel’s current plans.
The German coach, after some early-season experimentation, has settled on a forward-thinking 4-2-2-2 formation, with Di Maria and Neymar operating just behind Mbappé and Icardi. Marco Verratti and especially Idrissa Gueye provide a screen behind them and Tuchel has worked on a system where the left full-back tucks in when PSG advance, but the formation and its personnel still leave PSG vulnerable to the counter-attack. In high-pressure games against better sides in European competitions, Di Maria will play an important role in providing equilibrium to the team.
As well as being supremely gifted, which English football fans, unfortunately, did not get to see in full during his time in Manchester, Di Maria is a tireless worker, the sort of player who can summon the energy to get back and defend when everyone else on the pitch appears ready to collapse. And with the trio of Neymar, Mbappé and Icardi in front of him, it will be essential for him to perform a double function against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday night.
Dortmund have their own defensive frailties, but they are still enormously threatening on the break. So, when possession is turned over, Di Maria will need to be quick to withdraw, to position himself so that he can interrupt the progress of the yellow shirts that threaten to dart upfield. As the Dortmund attacks builds, he will need to drop in alongside Verratti and Gueye to help shield the defence.
But to Di Maria, the high demands of this role are familiar. As Real Madrid marched to La Decima – the club’s tenth European crown – in 2014, Di Maria was asked to do something similar by Carlo Ancelotti. Between a midfield pair of Luka Modric and Sami Khedira and a front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, he was the perpetually mobile link, the water carrier with that little bit of extra class.
“I adore [Di Maria] a lot,” said Tuchel to media before PSG beat Lille 2-0 in January. “I watched him at Real Madrid and I was a big fan… The way he plays football is similar to his personality. He doesn’t stop, he’s trustworthy, he works a lot for the team and he’s kind and pleasant.”
Tuchel, who will be facing his ex-team in western Germany on Tuesday night, is bringing a little of what he saw in the Madrid version of Di Maria and trusting him to repeat the feat. If PSG are to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since 2016, then they will need their Argentinian dynamo to be at his best. Whatever happens, this tie promises to entertain.