Juan Mata’s role at the heart of Van Gaal’s new look attack
The world’s best attacks are now summed up in acronyms. BBC (Benzema, Bale, Cristiano), MSN (Messi, Suarez, Neymar). They’re catchy and memorable. So what to call the new look Manchester United frontline; the M4 perhaps? Memphis Depay, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata may have finally found a winning formula at Old Trafford – and it’s the Spaniard who is at the heart of a positive attacking renaissance.
At the turn of the year many pundits believed that Mata’s Old Trafford career was approaching a crossroads, with his form and production on a steady decline. Performances bordering on anonymous were becoming more frequent and continued through January. Mata’s goal against Derby County aside, the Spaniard was largely found wanting – and his form was starting to draw the ire of a frustrated fanbase after two years at the club. Less blogging, more football required.
As United continued to struggle, falling further into mediocrity, so did the former Chelsea playmaker. Mata was being pushed to the margin of games, due in no small part to his lack of pace and the team’s patient style of probing football. Whether Mata was deployed as a false winger, or number 10, he has been unable to impose himself on games. Despite calls for a more consistent run at 10, it was in this role that some of Mata’s worse performances came this season.
Not that Mata has stood still as a player – Van Gaal can take credit for some evolution in the player’s style. The Spaniard is now a far more committed player off-the-ball and works hard defensively for his team. In Van Gaal’s system there is no room for passengers and the Dutchman expects defending to start on the front line. Mata’s ongoing flaws not withstanding – the awful attempt at a tackle in United’s away clash against FC Midtjylland, for example – he has considerably improved his all-round game.
It’s on the attacking front that improvements have come in the past week weeks, with Mata seemingly freed to become the attacking player of old. Perhaps it’s the combination of talent around him – the greater pace, power and youthful exuberance that Memphis, Martial and Rashford provide has created the space in which Mata can now flourish. Pace, in particular, allows Mata to roam into the pockets of space where he works best, rather than being forced into narrow areas of the pitch in some of Van Gaal’s more more rigid systems.
Consistency is obviously an ongoing issue, but United’s clashes with Midtjylland, Arsenal and Watford offered a glimpse into what the team’s new attacking unit can do. Mata was not at his best against the north London giants, but showed in a man-of-the-match display against the Hornets that he can be the focal point of United’s attack. While it surprised many that Mata took the skipper’s armband, the Spaniard lived up to the role with a brilliant late goal.
Against Midtjylland Mata created five chances, while getting on the scoresheet himself, spearheading a 5-1 victory that raised spirits amongst the Red Devils fanbase for the first time in some weeks. Then, in arguably his best display of the season, Mata created three more chances against Watford in midweek. If Van Gaal can continue to find a winning attacking formula Mata could permanently revitalise his career at the club.
"Mata’s story may only be just getting started at Old Trafford. Could it be as a part of football’s latest attacking acronym?"
The key is now more apparent than ever – it’s the men around him that make or break Mata’s performances. In addition to pace on the wings and up front, Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera are now the logical pairing behind Mata, providing the perfect blend of dynamism, defensive know-how and pace. It might just be the defining factor in the Spaniard’s success. Where Mata’s lack of pace cannot be fixed, it can be accommodated through the players around him, who create the space in which Mata can probe.
Then there is the tactical change that Van Gaal has made in recent weeks. When the pace of United’s attacks is slowed, as it has through so much of Van Gaal’s reign, the Spaniard struggles to break down opposition defences. In a more fluid set up he has flourished. So much so that Wayne Rooney must be quietly nervous where his future lies if the new system proves to be so successful in his absence. The Scouser’s poor form for much of the season cannot be ignored forever.
Still, Mata’s future is unclear. For the moment he is enjoying life at Old Trafford, but with José Mourinho seeming likely to arrive at the club in the summer, the player might have to impress the manager who sold him just over two years ago. Yet, in his current guise, Mata is not the same man Mourinho let go at a premium.
Indeed, Mata’s story may only be just getting started at Old Trafford. Could it be as a part of football’s latest attacking acronym?