In one of his stranger pressers, Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal notoriously mentioned about the lack of a ‘creative player’ in the mould of a Hazard, a Sergio Aguero or a Neymar, players who could turn the game on its head single-handed, after spending about £230m since he took charge last summer. He also went on to mention Young and Neymar in the same sentence illustrating the gulf in class between Manchester United and the rest of Europe’s elite teams, referring to the 1-0 loss at Stamford Bridge, clearly upset and even now annoyed by the defeat, after what was close to a complete performance in an away game. Although most of what he said does make sense, the array of attacking talent now available at Manchester United still trumps most sides in Europe, let alone England. Crucially, if Louis Van Gaal sorted out a few positions ahead of 2015/16 in terms of playing his players in the right areas and not out-of-position, they can contribute at a higher level on a more consistent basis.
It’s clear now that with the departures of Robin Van Persie and Radamel Falcao, club captain Wayne Rooney will have to shoulder an unfair level of expectation, though he should be used to it by now, with regard to the number of goals he has to score in what could be a longer season than the last, with added European duties. But what goes under the radar is the fact that United have a good number of goal-scoring midfielders in their armour already, who can make a telling difference in games at the highest level, provided they are used wisely. Gone are the days of Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes who could chip in with 20 goals in a season from midfield, but there’s a genuine possibility of another Manchester United (former Chelsea, ironically) midfielder getting close to that figure, with the right amount of games, in Juan Mata.
Juan Mata has never been a stranger to scoring goals and reaching double-figures. For a midfielder, he has always scored a good number of goals and more importantly, a good variety of goals during his short and successful career at Chelsea and Valencia previously. In 2012/13, the Spaniard scored 12 goals in the league and set up a remarkable dozen more, taking the goals + assists figure to 24, a staggering figure by all accounts which won him his second Player of the Year award in succession at the West London club.
If you put this total in perspective, this is the same number of goals Alexis Sanchez has contributed to Arsenal’s FA Cup winning season (16 + 8) and 1 more than Chelsea’s title winning current number 10 Eden Hazard, who was recently named the PFA Player of the Year for the season and quite rightly so. In fact, if you take 2013/14 out of the equation when he completed his winter transfer to Manchester United and compare the three full seasons he’s had with Chelsea (11/12 and 12/13) and United (14/15), the one under Van Gaal has been his worst and he’s still managed to make 13 goals (9 + 4) in 33 appearances which looks even better when you factor in the number of games he’s played the whole 90 minutes in – 15. Just fifteen.
The question hence lingers among every single fan as to why Van Gaal doesn’t trust Juan Mata enough, for a player of his skill and flair on the ball. After all this is a player who has won everything there is to win with club and country apart from the league title but the role he played in his first two incredibly successful seasons at Chelsea from the middle, just behind the striker, cannot be underestimated. Despite the fact that Mata can adapt his game to the demands of playing wide as effortlessly as he brings the ball to the ground with his first touch, there’s no denying the fact that he’s at his absolute best when deployed in the middle, where vision and creativity that United’s midfield is still lacking matters more than raw pace and beating your full-back. By playing in the middle, there’s also an added opportunity to get closer to the goal more than when he’s wide-right, which can let him have a go at goal more frequently than he’s done last season.
Mata’s conversion rate in his last two full seasons has been nothing short of impressive. In 2012/13, Mata occupied his favored number 10 role in most games, whilst occasionally drifting inside from the right, he created an astonishing 95 chances (league high chances per game ratio) while a 40% of those have come from the area we call ‘the hole’, right in between the opposition defence and midfield.
But what is more interesting is the number of shooting attempts (refer to the image below) he’s made when starting in a central area, roughly 2 shots per game as opposed to 1 in 14/15, with a remarkable 52% accuracy and a further impressive 26% conversion rate. He scored a total of 12 goals with the second highest goals per 90 minutes ratio (among midfielders with more than 5 goals) in the league, only behind former teammate Frank Lampard, showing his excellent goal-scoring prowess, something that Van Gaal can harness, if only he decided to shift him some 10 yards inside with the license to weave his magic wand of a left foot.
Juan Mata knows this better than anyone else that he has to share the goal-getting duties with his skipper now that the squad is deprived of a genuine 20-goal striker, unlike a Chelsea or Manchester City. By saying he hoped to relieve Rooney of his goal scoring burden, he has also in many ways expressed his desire to be given a more central role behind the forward, where he can operate at his very best, in the most subtlest of manners. In a recent tête-à-tête, he said,
“I always try to score. This season I will aim again to score a good number and to help the team with assists and goals. I had a 21-goal season at Chelsea [2012/13 including internationals with Spain] and 14 another year with Valencia [2009/10] so I have always been lucky enough to score a good number for a midfielder.
I used to play as a striker when I was a kid and every team I played for I had a good goals record and it is the same at United, too.”
Although I don’t see him playing up front at United ever in my lifetime, Mata certainly has a point there when he mentions his good goals record in every club he’s played in, eyes gleaming. For a player who played the full 90 minutes only 15 times all season in the league, 9 goals is a very very good return and looking at some of the goals he scored and the teams they came against, Van Gaal should have no hesitation in making him his talisman, in what is going to be an exciting season for the club and its supporters.