For one hour, three minutes and 52 seconds, Angel Di Maria was the best player in the world.
It was the same day that 35-year-old Lionel Messi 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 Mbappe, the outstanding player of the tournament, would score three goals after 80 minutes and leave not even an iota of doubt as to who will take over in Messi’s absence.
But for the first hour of the match, the big names are second best. It was Argentina’s other aging winger, not Messi, who drew the first penalty and scored the second goal, taking his team to a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 lead. The game ran through him like a high-voltage current. France could not escape the thin, slippery electric apple of a man.
It was, without a doubt, the last Angel Di Maria.
And then he left.
Maybe it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Of all Di Maria’s prodigious gifts, his biggest seems to be underappreciated.
He is hard to agree with, to be fair. His smoldering coal eyes, razor cheekbones and elfin ears sticking out of an impossibly tall face make him look like an El Greco study of Franz Kafka, and his acting is just as weird and brilliant as that might lead you to hope. He’s a strange sort of star in that he’s somehow never really been a star.
For one thing, he has no position. Or he has three of them. Over the past 15 years, Di Maria has played both wing and attacking midfield for some of the best teams in the world and has looked natural wherever his side needed him.
At the start of the World Cup, just as he did in Argentina’s qualifying campaign, Di Maria lined up to Messi’s right. The broad threat kept defense honest. Try to crowd Messi into the right half-court and Di Maria would slip in behind and hit you on the wing. Try to track the Maria and Messi would shake freely between the lines.
It has been working for them for the last year or so. Di Maria was playing on the right wing when he spread behind Brazil’s back line and scored the only goal in last year’s Copa America final, winning 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 talents.
Messi, a heavy left-footed playmaker, likes to dribble from right to left and look for killer diagonals to the opposite wing.
When left midfielder Giovani Lo Celso was fit, he could run onto balls while Di Maria 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 could have used it, even when Di Maria was right there.
Against France in the World Cup final, that finally changed. Di Maria switched to the left wing and Argentina – who have spent most of the tournament as a pick-up side that could do well when they have a little more Yerba mate – switched on.
For over an hour, they were untouchable.
It was obvious what the team was missing. In the 12th minute, when Messi dribbled to his left to look for a pass, he didn’t have to wait for his left back to sprint up an empty wing. The Maria is already high and wide to get a diagonal behind the defense.
Maria knew exactly what he was supposed to do next. He has been playing with Messi since 2008 (the year he ran onto a Messi pass to score the goal that won Argentina an Olympic gold medal).
Without thinking about it, he settled the ball on his left foot, waited for a strike for Messi’s favorite late-arriving run, then clipped a pass to the penalty spot. Only a sliding clearance from Aurelien Tchouameni saved it from becoming a signature Messi goal.
Two minutes later, when a Di Maria dribble drew half of France to his wing, Messi waved for the ball in the middle of the pitch and calmly waited while Maria shimmied around Adrien Rabiot and flipped a pass between two defenders with the outside of his Boot.
Again, Di Maria knew instinctively what would happen next, so he spun around and sprinted into the box, where he could have been in goal if Messi hadn’t misplaced the return pass.
Pretty soon, Argentina was throwing almost everything to the left wing, trusting Maria to figure it out.
At one point Messi drove up the middle and used his forgotten right foot to catch a ball in Maria’s general direction, which is about as high a compliment as he can give a pass receiver. Another time he tried to use his right to flick a chest-high ball back over his shoulder, not looking, to put Maria behind. (ok, ok, That is as reliable as Messi gets.)
The “Screw it, Maria is there somewhere” tactic is how Julian Alvarez helped set up Argentina’s first goal…
Ousmane Dembele charged Angel Di Maria as Lionel Messi gave Argentina the lead from the penalty spot 👀
Was it the right decision? 🤔#BBCFootball #BBCWorldCup pic.twitter.com/SIvVmTDQLe
– BBC Sport (@BBCSport) December 18, 2022
…and, with a little more planning, their second…
A top quality goal from Argentina 🇦🇷🙌 pic.twitter.com/BwixLkURWV
– FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 18, 2022
Unreal team goal 🤤
Argentina is 2-0 up!! The pass to Angel Di Maria 🔥#BBCWorldCup #FifaWorldCup pic.twitter.com/p7HcEgTcnt
– BBC Sport (@BBCSport) December 18, 2022
But it wasn’t just Di Maria’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 he wasn’t dribbling circles around Jules Kounde, Maria had to cut off the right-back’s passing lanes. That freed up Mac Allister behind him to sign Antoine Griezmann, whose floating midfield role has been key to France’s success all tournament.
Without these two players, France was pure Jacques Tati slapstick on the ball. They crawled past the hour mark without a single shot, the second-worst start of any team in the World Cup (only Costa Rica, who didn’t shoot in their 7-0 humiliation by Spain, had a more dry spell).
But just when Argentina looked like they were on their way to the trophy, Scaloni made an almost fatal mistake.
One hour, three minutes and 52 seconds into the game, Maria came off the field.
The next hour was a completely different game.
Subscribing a tired 34-year-old left winger so that defender Marcos Acuna could support the left midfield may have looked like a smart game-management move on paper, but it has Argentina in disagreement.
Take the sequence before France’s first goal. Mac Allister fought his way through midfield with an opponent on his back. Fifteen minutes earlier, he probably would have looked for an outlet pass to Maria on the wing, but Acuna was hanging back at the halfway line, behind the ball. There was no exit and no way forward.
Without a good possession structure on the left, Argentina are trapped against the right sideline instead. France won the ball on that side, broke quickly and scored.
Less than two minutes later, Messi was in a similar predicament. He dribbled to the left under heavy pressure and looked to release the ball on the wing. This time Acuna was upfield but too narrow, not offering Messi a passing option he trusted. With no Di Maria to pass the ball to, Messi was caught in possession and France scored again to send the game to extra time.
It wasn’t just a few uncomfortable moments. The switch to a flat 4-4-2 changed the way Argentina worked in possession – or, more often, didn’t work at all. Messi’s favorite diagonals completely dried up.
When Messi would cut inside and look out to the left wing, he would see Acuna running to catch up to the play. When he did, it was usually too late.
What was supposed to be a defensive substitution wound up having the opposite effect. With Argentina suddenly uncomfortable on the ball, France found their rhythm and began to push forward. A game that was completely one-sided became anything but.
As for Di Maria, he was left to test his team on the sidelines. When Messi scored in extra time, it was Di Maria, sprinting off the bench to celebrate with him in his training bib.
When Mbappe equalized again to send the game to penalties, the camera showed Maria sobbing in his shirt.
This is not the first time he has had to watch from the sidelines with the World Cup on the line. In 2014, he tore a muscle in the quarter-finals and missed the end of Argentina’s tournament. “I just want to win the World Cup,” he begged his coaches then, insisting painkillers would get him through the final. “If you call me, I’ll play until I break.”
There is no question he would have done the same even now, at 34. Scaloni must have wished he had let him. But this time, by the grace of Don Diego and La Tota, Argentina did not need him.
One hour, three minutes and 52 seconds of Di Maria as the best player on the pitch – and a lifetime of Messi, the greatest ever to do so – were enough to win the World Cup.
(Top photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)