Juan Mata’s role at the heart of Van Gaal’s new look attack

March 6, 2016 Tags: , Reads 13 comments
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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?


James McGuirk - March 6, 2016 Reply

Player gets used in his right position and plays well, what a shocker, only took VG 2 years to figure it out

EK Cantona - March 6, 2016 Reply

With a sent off after 27 minutes…

Denton Davey - March 6, 2016 Reply

Not the best timing for this article-of-faith regarding Juan Mata’s role as the key man in organizing UTD’s MMM-attack.

Jack Moore - March 6, 2016 Reply

Lets put todays result into perspective. WBA are a very poor team and the fact that we were down to ten men should not have mattered. A quick reorganization pr maybe even a substitution and then back at them. What did lvg do. Well er… nothing for nearly half an hour. We looked clueless. Lackin ideas and most importantly lacking leadership, especially from the bench. Why is this fool being allowed to continue. Do we have to hit new depths before he is jettisoned. Its awful to watch. I’m taking my son on a 8 hour round trip next week to the West Ham game and I fear the worst.

Subterranean Steve - March 6, 2016 Reply

Even with the suspension of Mata, United will still have the M4 – Memphis, Martial, Marcus and Marouane. Not quite so exciting now?

The pedant in me would like to point out that BBC and MSN are not acronyms.

Opti - March 7, 2016 Reply

What a spineless performance. From minute 1 to minute 94, it was clear that no one wanted to win. Absolutely trash. After 15 minutes, it was clear that we were 2nd best on tackles, touches, and passes. Disgraceful.

The red card was just further evidence that our football IQ is in the gutter.

Nothing positive at all from this performance. They should be ashamed of themselves.

LvG should be sent to the gallows, especially since Liverpool managed to win from exactly the same position. Congratulations all!

Subterranean Steve - March 7, 2016 Reply

After the sending off LVG didn’t appear to know how to reshuffle the side to try to compensate for the loss of Mata. Basically United played not just without Mata, but without anyone filling his role. Typically even when substitutions were eventually made, they were merely like for like.

Given that there was only one goal in it, United’s inability to mount any sort of real pressure in the last ten minutes was pathetic. Being down to ten men was no excuse for that. Any sign of a strong last ditch effort by United would have put West Brom well onto the back foot, but it never materialised.

Opti - March 7, 2016 Reply

Even BEFORE Mata was sent off, United looked nowhere near their least-worst… 3 steps forward and 4 steps back… the LvG philosophy dance!

ralph c - March 7, 2016 Reply

I got an acronym. How does FAIL sound?

Seriously, we couldn’t score against Watford from open play. Couldn’t hurt West Brom, red card or no. Sound familiar?

bobbynoble - March 7, 2016 Reply

Football Advocated (by) Incompetent Louis.

Richard - March 7, 2016 Reply

No surprise. We have no squad as such; just an odd collection of players that don’t know what or if their place is. Louis is doing his best, (forgetting comic dive) to project the image of control; probably all he can do right now. Though now of course it’ll be more difficult for him to persuade his players after 18 months that he’s got it under control.

Bringing in Mourinho now would be anticlimactic; who wants to step in to fight for glorious fifth place? Wait till the summer and make some statement signings and some statement exits: Rooney topping the list. Signing Zlatan for a season to rotate with Martial and another long term signing such as Lukaku would be ideal. Pogba would obviously send a strong signal of intent and perhaps signing Ruben Neves and Lucas Silva. Just saying…Woodward?

Opti - March 7, 2016 Reply

Looool. Pogba would never come back. We need players who are willing to bleed for the shirt. Not players on the downturn willing to come here for a final pay-day… Lukaku is probably best bet and would be a fantastic 40m signing…

LJ - March 8, 2016 Reply

I honestly believe mata is less the reason for our recent resurgence and more a passenger in it. His performances have been acceptable but not at the level you would expect from a star player, this should be his minimum performance level in my opinion. The increased pace around him has indeed increased his ability to perform however he can clearly be seen to slow down counter attacks with his lack of pace at times effectively ensuring a slower build up in our attacks which has often been an issue this year.

I don’t believe mata has played poorly due to his effort or ability but rather the requirements of the English game. Whilst once lightweight and technically gifted number 10s were effective (mata, faberagas, zola, kagawa, David silva) there is a growing trend for fast, goal scoring number 10s in the English game (payet, allI, de bruyne, toure) who can battle with defenders and participate in counters. I believe manchester united have a player well suited to this role in Ander Hererra who often played there during his time Spain.

In conclusion mata is a great player but is struggling due to his physical limitations more than his effort and may be better off moving on to other leagues to fully recognise his abilities.

Any thoughts?

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