Mata’s brilliance shines, but the Spaniard may never usurp Rooney

October 2, 2015 Tags: , Reads 13 comments
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Louis van Gaal’s side is currently top of the Premier League table, and finally in the points in the Champions League. Yet if you believe much of the written press and watching public, this Manchester United side is not very good. It’s a confusing paradigm for the watching journalists as they report on the country’s form team. The Red Devils edged past Wolfsburg on Wednesday night, beating the Germans 2-1 despite a poor start and nervous finish. The highlight of the night was Juan Mata’s performance, whose irresistible play resembled that of his Chelsea days, when the Spaniard was the most feared attacking midfielder in the league.

Mata has learned to play the Van Gaal way, often having to sacrifice flair for function. Under David Moyes, the diminutive Spaniard was lost in a system which wreaked of inadequacy; a toxic mess of Evertonian steel mixed with tactical ineptitude. Van Gaal demands an exceptional work rate from his players, and if you were to believe Jose Mourinho’s judgement on application, Mata would be the first one out the Old Trafford door.

However, the player has made the right side attacking berth his own, popping up in a number of positions as he looks to move inside and participate. His work rate is outstanding too; only Morgan Schneiderlin covered more ground against Wolfsburg.

Mata’s display against Wolfsburg demonstrated just how much potential he has in a United shirt. He is a natural number 10, but has been overlooked by three successive coaches for the central role. The question for Van Gaal now is whether to ‘promote’ Mata into that role, leveraging the player’s stellar form, or stick with what he knows.

Mata has scored three goals and made three assists from his seven league matches this season and is in prime form to play behind Anthony Martial as United’s trequartista. But if this is the case, the question remains of what to do with Wayne Rooney.

The focus of attention in England is always on Rooney, with the extra weight of being Van Gaal’s captain also on his shoulders. Handling pressure is the not the issue for the skipper; the quality of his game, however, is not currently at its highest.

Rooney shifted from a role as United’s number nine to 10 after Martial’s purchase, with many supporters happier that the ‘boy wonder’ was moved to a deeper role. It is, however, a myth that Rooney is a modern number 10.

In the same way that Peter Crouch might be considered an old school striker, Rooney is a throwback to a deep-lying attacker. He neither threads a through pass or ghosts past opponents — as all trequaristas are expected to do. Rooney’s pace is no longer a relevant part of his arsenal, and it is a cold fact that he doesn’t score many goals.

It begs the question of what exactly Rooney does? In a year of transition, Rooney gave Van Gaal authority in the dressing room in a way Moyes never had. Rooney leads the Dutchman’s incarnation of United. He’s the archetypal ‘Prince of Wales, not the King of the Castle’, but is certainly not a commoner in the hierarchy of the club.

Rooney’s elevated club status has given Van Gaal a focal point within his squad that many believed Robin van Persie would provide. But Van Persie’s fall from grace gave the manager only one choice, and he gambled on the White Pele as his central protagonist.

That was fine for the first 12 months under the Van Gaal regime, but the club and side has evolved. There is, for example, Chris Smalling’s rebirth and Ashley Young’s reintegration into the squad as an important player. The acquisitions of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin have addressed the central midfield disease Rooney was asked to cure last term.

This evolution has made Rooney less relevant; Mata’s form and Martial’s explosive start to life at United dictate that Van Gaal should be brave and drop his captain. Yet, the manager’s words after United’s victory over Wolfsburg point towards Wayne staying in the team, unduly untouchable. Worse still, Van Gaal refused to give Mata the plaudits he deserved after a magnificent night.

“I don’t talk about individual performances, but I have seen Mata playing better than he did against Wolfsburg,” said Van Gaal. “I can say as a manager that he played very well and agree with you, but I don’t agree with you.”

It is a convoluted statement, considering Mata’s influence guaranteed United the points, but Van Gaal’s words appear to solidify Rooney’s role, by dodging the question of whether Mata should be moved to a role behind the striker.

Rooney has one goal in six Premier League games, and if this is the player’s ratio over the course of the season, he will do well to break double figures. This would be in line with the player’s grand contribution of 12 league goals last season, but if Rooney is to be Van Gaal’s main attacker – pulling the strings – then United need much much more.

Mata is ready for an extended run in a more central role, freeing up space for Young, who — despite being one of the Reds’ best players in the opening weeks of the campaign — has been forced to watch from the sidelines as the disappointing Memphis Depay finds his feet.

Mata would help Memphis and Young as they provide the width, and with Martial’s obvious pace, the Spaniard could practice the art of the through ball to his heart’s content.

The Rooney question has become a rhetorical one in 2015, but even the Englishman’s most fervent supporters admit he is not the force he once was. Meanwhile, Mata’s career has been on hold since Mourinho dumped him in favour of Oscar. It’s easy to forget the midfielder was one of the brightest talents in the world just a few years ago.

As Rooney enters his 30th year in October, Mata is in his prime, aged 27. Van Gaal may feel that sacrificing his captain is a sign of weakness, both to the squad and the British press, but the Merseysider’s displays have now sunk to such a low level, the coach must at least try to give a genuine creative talent a chance.


Robert Lewis - October 2, 2015 Reply

good read. I don’t want mata to move to the centre though. He’s been best for MUFC since moving to the right.

denton davey - October 2, 2015 Reply

I think that we’ve all been wondering about “wither TheWayneBoy”; BUT the team is getting better and winning regularly while playing something close to interesting footie (well, at least some of the time !).

I’ve wondered whether it might be a good idea to switch Rooney to Mata’s right-sided role, and vice-versan but don’t think that that’s a likely proposition under LvG who would want a stronger player to “protect” his midfield protectors.

The other idea that is commonly discussed is dropping TheWayneBoy in favour of Ander Herrera but I think that that would be a last resort for LvG unless Rooney gets injured. BUT ALSO give KidWilson and Andreas Pereira and maybe even AdnanJ the chance to dislodge any of them (although watching Dortmund yesterday, I came away with the sense that Januzaj won’t be dislodging anyone – sooner or later). In addition, there are some bright sparks among the real youngsters – Marcus Rashford’s name seems to pop up a lot and we’re being told that Callum Gribbins is a guy to watch – who might surprise and LvG has been known to give youth a chance……

So, somewhat reluctantly, I think that sticking with the front four is most likely – let them learn to play together, as a unit. That way, they’ll know where – sideways and/or backwards – their mates have found space. If, somehow, they can also find a way to get the ball forwards to Anthony Martial then good times beckon.

Robert McFarlane - October 2, 2015 Reply

I’m disappointed that even though I willed it, you and Paul didn’t do a rantcast supplement praising the greatness of the Juan.

Michael Assefa - October 2, 2015 Reply

I personally feel sad for the British press who have to do a lot of creative dancing around the Rooney subject. The evidence is everywhere if one is willing to look at it objectively. From commentators praising his simple sideways passes as profusely as a Messi wonder goal, to those unashamed former players who blame Valencia for not reaching a Rooney Hollywood pass to the right which was off by 10 meters.

On an NBC broadcast of Man Utd vs Sunderland, Arlo White and Tim Howard (Everton keeper) commented, “… great work by Rooney” and “… he showed great captains character…”. Those comments may just seem as benign cliches but they were actually made when a United counter, where Martial would have been clear through, broke down because of Rooney poor ball control.

I honestly don’t understand how a professional journo and respected professional player can ‘lie’ as blatantly as that on live tv. And this is not limited to them too. G Nev always seems to be lavishing praise on Rooney while he lays into all other players and teams for minor faults. looking at this from the outside i have to say this is getting pathetic. Cudos to you guys for at least trying to be truthful.

Fusilli Jerry - October 2, 2015 Reply

I don’t need the media to tell me Wgat my eyes can see for themselves: this Manchester United is better than recent models, arguably good, but no, not very good.

Rooney’s auto-selection is not resulting in reliable form, but would that that were the only problem with van Gaal’s line ups. Carrick and Scheiderlin’s games do not complement one another yet regularly they are deployed together whilst Herrera watches from the sidelines. The manager describes the Premier League as a “rat-race” and tells us his players are tired, yet Martial and Depay start every game whilst Pereira and Wilson twiddle their thumbs. The diabolical Valencia appears regularly.

Van Gaal had little to do with identifying the line up responsible for clinching 4th last spring – it wouldn’t have happened but for di Maria’s suspension and RVP’s injury – and his blind spots seem similarly prevalent this season. Giggs keeps his mouth shut so gets the manager’s nod for the succession, meanwhile our results are better than our performances.

A kind run of fixtures has seen heartening if limited progress, but the real stuff starts now.

Allan - October 2, 2015 Reply

I really don’t think Mata should be given the central role. He’s having the form of his life in the right and contributing to 45% of United goals this season, so it’s really a matter of not fixing what is not broken.

On the other hand, I agree Wayne should be dropped, for the very same reason you brilliantly put in your text. Give the #10 position to Ander Herrera, who has a terrific understanding with Juan Mata, can create a lot of chances and has a good finishing with his both feet. We would be much more fluid that way.

bobbynoble - October 2, 2015 Reply

If Martial gets injured van Gaal’s house of cards will start to wobble.

denton davey - October 2, 2015 Reply

Always look on the bright side, m8.

bobbynoble - October 3, 2015 Reply

I did say ‘if’.

Bobdigi - October 3, 2015 Reply

Mata doesn’t have the acceleration or strength on the ball to play in tight spaces. I think he finds more room drifting in from wide. Rooney has been awful though.

denton davey - October 3, 2015 Reply

He might not have “strength” or “acceleration” but his close-control is astonishing. Indeed, the lack of those two qualities separates him from Messi – or being MessiLite.

That said, I think that playing him to drift-in-from-the-right makes a virtue out of necessity since he has a lot of space into which he can run and nothing disconcerts defenders more than having someone run at them – or into the space around them that is undefended.

Ichiro - October 3, 2015 Reply

In the premier league, its not enough to have great technique as a trequartista. you need strength as well to hold off defenders. Noone has ever been able to find a position for Mata in this league, hes too slow to be a winger, too weak to play in the middle.

Arguably Van Gaal has found the best position for him as this “false winger” where he can drift in and cross or go round the back. Its notable that Mata has become more effective now that Valencia is playing at right back again.he needs someone with that Attacking menace to draw the full back away from him, and give him space to turn and cross.

Tom Parkinson - October 3, 2015 Reply

The simple reality is Wayne Rooney’s best days are LONG behind him. His catastrophic loss of “form” stopped being considered “form” when we ticked over the 12-18 month mark of regular poor performances. Fergie saw it coming and tried to bin him but then Moyes locked him in with that absurd contract.

He is suffering from the exact same style of collapse that we have seen from the likes of Michael Owen, Fernando Torres, and now more recently Falcao. Age, injuries, and consistently playing 1st team football since they were 16-17 years old took its toll on all these guys, and Rooney is no different. World class players who suddenly seem to have forgotten how to do basic things with a football.

Sadly for Rooney now, he just isn’t very good. Poor touch, poor movement, little energy, no creativity, completely one dimensional. It’s absolutely staggering that he is still in the team, but it is early days in the season – however if this run of performances continues, (which it will) to the mid season mark, there will be no option but to drop him. I’m sure behind the scenes the pressure is on, and players like Herrera, Pereira, Wilson, Mata, Young etc will be vying for his spot.

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