Mata vs Mkhitaryan: the fight for the right

August 29, 2016 Tags: , , Reads 23 comments
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Competition for places is a necessity for success. It keeps players at their sharpest, maintains motivation and, ultimately, is a factor driving the club forward. The introduction of a new manager can create a situation where competition is particularly important. Early performances create lasting impressions – a fact players under José Mourinho’s new regime already know.

Juan Mata joined the Mourinho era with a target on his back. Once a player during Mourinho’s second regime at Chelsea, many expected that the Spaniard to become the first squad member culled in the inevitable summer clear out. Early reports named Mata as a player ‘officially for sale’.

Yet, contrary to expectations, the playmaker appears to have survived the summer. Matt’s perseverance has paid dividends, with all indicators suggesting that the Spaniard will be retained, having proven himself through training, pre-season and in the opening matches of the campaign. Mourinho is seemingly now convinced that one of the men originally perceived as an outcasts has a vital role to play.

The question now is whether Mata’s role is as a bona-fide starter or just another player in Mourinho’s rotation. It is no shame to be the latter, but very few players have the ego to stomach a reduced role. While Mata is certainly not driven by his ego, he has not built a career being a bench warmer.

The Spaniard’s early season performances on the right have allowed his new manager to not rush new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan into the team. The highly rated Armenian was a £35 million acquisition from Borussia Dortmund this summer, with United winning the race to sign the reigning Bundesliga Player of the Year.

Because of Mkhitaryan’s absence, questions have already been asked. Why isn’t one of the summer’s most expensive purchases not in the team? It is par for the course at United – a high-profile signing at the world’s biggest news generating football club. There have been claims that the Armenian is struggling to adapt or, with little credibility, that Mourinho doesn’t rate the new man as much as he might have thought.

The claims lack credibility because the Portuguese boss spent much of his unemployment scouting the players he ended up signing. He was spotted in Dortmund and Paris, for example. It’s highly doubtful that he has given up on his star man after two games. Closer to the truth is that many signings take time to integrate.

Yet, Mkhitaryan’s slow start has given Mata fresh hope at United and an opportunity to make a claim for a permanent role this season. Though he lacks pace – the main quality Mourinho likes in his wide attackers – Mata’s discipline and work rate has significantly improved since his move to Old Trafford. The player who left Stamford Bridge is not the same one Mourinho manages today.

While Mata’s lack of tackling skills and slight physique makes defending difficult, his defensive contribution has certainly come a long way. Rather than enjoying a free role through the attack, Mata has learned to track back and play his part in a defensive unit.

Mkhitaryan is a very different player, although the expectation is that he will compete directly with Mata for a role on the right side of the team in the coming weeks, at least while Wayne Rooney occupies the place at number 10. The former Shakhtar and Dortmund man is a pacey runner and has developed a clever eye for goal.

Both players are terrific passers, whether it is playing teammates through the middle or using a reverse passes when cutting inside. Mkhitaryan plays all the angles, operating in mid pockets of space and is an excellent crosser, which is why the 27-year-old can operate wide and at number 10.

"Mata joined the Mourinho era with a target on his back. Many expected that the Spaniard to become the first player culled in an inevitable clear out. The role on the right is the Spaniard’s for now, but it is likely that soon Mkhitaryan will make his presence felt."

The Armenian is also a wonderful dribbler, with close control leaving the ball practically glued to his feet when he gets moving. The workmate is terrific too, enabling Mkhitaryan to contribute defensively. Mourinho will enjoy his willingness to press. He’s also managed to made a good impressions coming off the bench against Southampton and Hull City.

What works against Mata is his tendency to drop out of games, although his growing ability to work for the team has helped counter this inconsistency. Both enjoy a very high football IQ, with the main difference between them, one that could be a defining factor, is the new arrival’s better physicality – a perfect mix of strength and speed.

Yet “Mkhi” is not perfect. He struggled at Borussia Dortmund under Jurgen Klopp when the team was going through a turbulent period. The player was asked to do a lot by himself, which is not his forte. Thomas Tuchel’s arrival liberated the player, in a system built to utilise the best of his talents.

Mkhitaryan is a confidence player, evident during Klopp’s tenure, and restored under Tuchel. It was no coincidence that the player’s performances improved after Klopp announced he would be leaving the club.

One other difference between Mata and Mkhitaryan is the latter’s understanding of how to keep the ball moving within a system. The Armenian always seems to know where to be and when within a team structure. And what does Mourinho like? Tactical discipline above all else.

If those observation’s point to Mkhitaryan’s victory in his individual battle with Mata, then the Spaniard’s edge is in his knack for moments of individual brilliance. Despite being nullified by Louis Van Gaal and David Moyes’ systems he was still able to create something out of very little. Mkhitaryan’s is a great team player, who works well in a structure.

Yet, both players should succeed in an environment where they don’t need to be the main man. It’ll be a fascinating contest considering the pair’s varying strengths.

Barring Rooney’s demotion, which would open up the number 10 role for one of them, it’s likely that Mata and Mkhitaryan will continue to fight it out for the starting berth on the right of Mourinho’s attack. It is the Spaniard’s for now, but it is likely that over time Mkhitaryan will make his presence felt.

This level of élite competition is healthy, and very much welcome at the start of a new era.


Oseite - August 29, 2016 Reply

Mkhitaryan was not 35 million pounds, in fact he was less than 30, why inflate transfer figures?

Ed - August 29, 2016 Reply

Yes its a HUGE conspiracy to defraud the Rant readership for dastardly reasons that we will not reveal. Muhahahahaha!

Or, actually: (€42 m is £35.8m)

Andrew - August 29, 2016 Reply

The reality is nobody really knows the figure hence the wide disparity in reported sale prices. Moot point anyway.

williams - August 29, 2016 Reply

Mata should always start ahead mkhitaryan,but maybe mourinho should sub in mhki in the second half of any game

GB - August 29, 2016 Reply

Why? What about Mata do you think makes him better than Mkhitaryan? Stats? Skills? And please don’t say PL experience, as Mkhi was involved in 26 goals last year and created >80 chances in the BuLi and was the BuLi player of the year. What Mou did for 3 matches is OK, but Mkhi needs the full 90.

Denton Davey - August 29, 2016 Reply

“Barring Rooney’s demotion, which would open up the number 10 role for one of them”

Not so fast, if – and it’s a huge “if” – TheWayneBoy is demoted/injured then there’s probably more likelihood that Marcus Rashford will get the #9 job and Zlatan will be #10. Such a transition/change wouldn’t happen overnight but it’s pretty clear that Rashford offers not just genuine pace (and especially acceleration) but a very, very, very clear eye for the main chance.

The team that Jo$e puts out before the middle of the first half of the season is likely to be quite different from the first-choice that he plays a few months later, in crunch-time.

As I see it, the players most in jeopardy of losing their places are Mata, Fellaini, Valencia and Rooney – in that order. The players most likely to take those places are Mhkitaryan, Schneiderlin, Fosu-Mensah, and Rashford. Of course, Fellaini could be replaced in midfield by Daley Blind if Jo$e decides that he’d prefer Mike Smalling in central defence and Valencia might be replaced by the rumoured signing of the Brazilian right back from Monaco.

The situation is fluid but it’s highly unlikely that what we now see is what we will get be getting.

Alex - August 29, 2016 Reply

Why not both? send Martial to the bench… Have Mkhitaryan as LW/LAM and Mata as RW/RAM

Erol Direncay - August 29, 2016 Reply

there should be no fight drop Wayne and PLAY THEM BOTH!!

Boone83 - August 29, 2016 Reply

agreed. Mkhi on the right, Mata 10 and Rashford on the left (Martial needs a break)

GB - August 29, 2016 Reply

If you’ve watched both of these guys over the last 2 years, there is basically no debate at all. Mkhi is faster, stronger, more creative, better shot, better defender, tracks back better, smarter, 2-footed (you can find videos of him scoring with rockets outside the box with both feet), more versatile (he was MOTM last year in a game as a wingback!), etc. Nothing against Mata, who we know the fans like, on pure ability and fit it’s Mkhi in a landslide. He’s a world class player and was the deserving BuLi player of the year last year. Hopefully Mou realizes this very soon – he’s depriving the fans and the team.

Dave - August 29, 2016 Reply

Both should start.Rooney’s the elephant in the room. (no pun intended)

Dave Skelly - August 29, 2016 Reply

Both should start. Rooney’s the elephant in the room. (no pun intended)

Daniel - August 29, 2016 Reply

Mata played in every league match last year. 6 goals and 5 assists.

NazManUnited - August 30, 2016 Reply

Take Rooney off, problem solved

Mike - August 30, 2016 Reply

Pssst DAVE! Hush! Dont say rational things like that. The mob does not like it.

True United fans want Rooney to always start regardless of form. Who cares about the team or better players. He is the record scorer for England and scored 30 something goals 4 or 5 years ago. Other better players should make way for him. He has been here for years and this should be respected and should play as long as he wants because he was great in 2010.

Nerd - August 30, 2016 Reply

Mata is not great at the right side we all know that…It aint his fav position. Play him in the middle behind the strikers and u will see what he can do. Take fellaini off . He the one causing problems but we all know he is in there coz mou likes defensive football. Both should play and you will see what they can do

Andrew Pearson - August 30, 2016 Reply

Rooney hasn’t played well in years. SAF knew his best years were behind him

Joseph B. - August 31, 2016 Reply

These two will be dropped i fancy Lingard in that position

Adam Joseph - September 1, 2016 Reply


Nick Rooney - September 1, 2016 Reply

True MUFC fans know what Rooney has done.. look at this season’s assists.. its him and Valencia. Rooney is always great. He is the skipper after all.

Ed - September 2, 2016 Reply

What is a “true” MUFC fan? One that agrees with your opinion?

Nick Rooney - September 1, 2016 Reply

Mata should start on the bench, mkhi is great.. Lingard should sub Rooney, Rashford should sub Ibrahimovic.period

dazza2501 - September 2, 2016 Reply

It’s nice to have strength in depth particularly with the demands of European competition on a Thursday and weekend match to follow, where rotation/ fresh players is an issue & Mourinho seems to have grasped this. I am sure the selection & tactics will evolve as the season progresses, but agree Mkhitarayan’s greater athleticism would eventually see him ahead of Mata if contesting a wide right berth, especially as recent selections have Martial on the left as the only player of pace. I think by insisting Rooney is a striker Mourinho has laid the seeds of Wayne’s move to the MLS, but will do it as an evolution and not suddenly. Mata & Mkhitarayan are both better more natural number 10s than Rooney, but Jose wants to avoid a dressing room revolt he endured at Chelsea so will use injuries & form to shape this process. No agenda (eh Ed) but Rooney is in the way of a lot of players performing to their full potential or more natural position.

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