After a convincing derby defeat in mid-week the pressure at Old Trafford was reaching boiling and spurred the infamous airplane banner protest during the first few minutes of the game. It meant Manchester United needed someone to step up and Juan Mata put in his best performance since his move in January.
Moving to Manchester United to play in his favoured (and best) position behind the striker, Mata encountered the same problem with Rooney and Van Persie’s places in the team meaning the Spanish midfielder was forced out onto the left as Moyes tried to find a system to fit all of his best players in. The injury to Van Persie saw Mata start the match against Aston Villa in the number 10 position as Rooney moved into the advanced striker role and the performance saw an evident improvement.
Mata began to dominate the play in the attacking half more and more as the game progressed completing 39 of his 47 passes (83% passing accuracy) with 63 touches. The tempo, which has often been slow thus easier to defend against, was risen to a high level as the constant movement of Mata, Rooney, and Kagawa opened up pockets of space between midfield and defence regularly leaving Aston Villa exposed which played a part in United’s goals. The movement of the former Chelsea player also helped to raise the performance of Kagawa who was able to move inside rather than be restricted to the left like he has previously and made a good assist for Rooney’s goal.
Being the scorer of 20 goals – 12 in the league – for Chelsea last season, the Spanish international is capable of contributing goals to the team himself and Mata did so in the second half with his only shot of the match. His goals tally can continue to rise if his partnership with Rooney continues in the same fashion as Saturday. Rooney has a liking for dropping deep and this saw him get behind the defence with clever runs. This occurred when Mata won the penalty, whilst also showing the composure and confidence he has despite a difficult season to attempt a ‘Cruyff’ turn and go for goal himself – other players may have gone away from goal.
On the creative side of his game, Mata created 2 chances for Manchester United – the most for his side – and flourished in the free role he was allowed to play in as he brought his teammates into play as the link between midfield and attack. In this role, Mata was allowed to stay further up the pitch without having to track back – something he isn’t comfortable at doing – is noticeable with the playmaker not making any tackles or clearances and being able to focus on his strengths had positive results on United.
Juan Mata’s performances will be important for Manchester United as they hope to end the season with an optimism that things will be better during the next campaign under Moyes – he may have just found a system that can work.