Manchester United finally got their league campaign up and running on Sunday with a four-nil demolition of (the distinctly average) Queens Park Rangers. The reports in the aftermath of this destruction alluded mainly to the expensive new weapons that United now possess in their upgraded armoury. Ed Woodward finally dusted off the Old Trafford cheque-book at the back end of August, as the Red Devils for once flexed their financial muscle. As a result, United now possess a wealth of attacking talent in their ranks that could soon become the envy of the rest of the Premier League.
The prominent debate in the wake of this spending spree was just how manager Louis Van Gaal would accommodate these players into his team. The man who many thought would automatically miss out appeared to be Juan Mata. Mark Ogden of the Telegraph, for example, predicted that Mata lacked the pace to thrive in the absence of a 3-4-1-2 formation. Ogden was not alone in predicting that Mata would make way, despite the diminutive Spaniard scoring, and assisting more goals than David Silva, Mesut Ozil and Eden Hazard since arriving at Old Trafford last January. Robbie Savage also wrote in The Mirror that ‘there isn’t going to be any room for Mata’, and that Rooney would naturally drop back behind the attacking prowess of Van Persie and Falcao. Many other outlets reported that Mata would not only be dropped, but sold, with Juventus apparently interested in taking him to Serie A. It remains to be seen, of course, if any of these predictions come to fruition.
Ogden also stated in his article that Mata had yet to make a ‘decisive contribution to a critical game for the team’. By the time the Spanish international arrived at Old Trafford on 25h January 2014, United’s chances of a top four finish were all but gone, having suffered defeats to Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City away from home. They’d also already entertained Arsenal and Chelsea at the Theatre Of Dreams. In addition, Mata was cup-tied for the European tie against Bayern Munich, so there weren’t too many ‘box-office’ fixtures left for Mata to influence.
The way Van Gaal set out his United troops on Sunday indicated that he can utilise a back four, and still have room for Mata further up the pitch. Di Maria undoubtedly stole the headlines but Mata certainly played his part, getting on the end of the Argentine’s scuffed shot to net his second goal of the season, his ninth for Manchester United, and generally impressing with his link-up play.
Call it what you will, but there’s no arguing Van Gaal played with a midfield four on Sunday, and Mata was once more deployed in the ‘number ten’ position. Of course, it takes exceptional players such as Di Maria and Ander Herrera, plus protection from the impressive Daley Blind, to succeed where even Ferguson failed with the ‘diamond’ in the middle of the park.
To say the 4-4-2 formation has become unfashionable would be a huge understatement, particularly amongst the football scene-sters, but there was nothing unfashionable about United’s performance against QPR. In all the pre-season talk of United unleashing wing-backs, it was overlooked just how often Irwin, Parker, Gary Neville and Patrice Evra made an impact in the final third of the pitch playing predominantly as full-backs. There’s nothing to suggest that Rojo, Shaw, Valencia and Rafael can’t provide the same penetration from the wings.
Van Gaal frequently ‘tinkers’ with his formation during matches, and Mata is more than capable of filling in on the left hand side. Despite his ineffectiveness under David Moyes in this position, the fluidity of Van Gaal’s approach simply won’t allow Mata to stagnate whilst struggling to get into the game. Let’s not forget that Mata won the Player of the Year award twice for Chelsea, and was often used in positions other than the ‘number ten’.
Mata has created four chances so far this season and, although he is yet to provide an assist, he has found the back of the net twice. He has made 175 successful passes at a completion rate of 93%. He is a Spanish international and cost nearly forty million pounds. Why then is he viewed as the automatic choice to make way to fit in other players? Could it be that, like many others, he is being associated with David Moyes’ dire tenure last season? Would there be the same amount of opposition to his place in the starting line-up if he would have been bought this summer? Probably not.
Van Gaal’s strong relationship with Robin Van Persie has been much publicised since the World Cup in Brazil, but that’s not to say Van Gaal will avoid dropping him to the bench if his performances don’t improve. The Dutchman is without a goal this season, and has looked a peripheral figure throughout the majority of it. It also remains to be seen if Falcao’s knee can stand up to the strain of the Premier League, and Wayne Rooney himself is no stranger to injury.
The fact is that United need an elite squad, not just an elite team, if they are to succeed this season, and the next. Rotation will always play a part, be it forced or otherwise, so even if Mata were to be left out of the side, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of his Manchester United career.
Mata may not have shone through the dull 2013/14 campaign, but I certainly expect him to light up Old Trafford alongside the ‘Gaalacticos’ this season, and not just as a starry-eyed onlooker sat on the bench.