Two years on Mata is no closer to fulfilling his promise
Even in the current inflated transfer market, £37.1 million is a lot of money. Juan Mata, Manchester United’s record signing at the time of transfer in January 2014, has not yet justified the fee. While Mata’s class is clear, the Spanish midfielder has failed to become the star man so many expected.
Against Liverpool on Thursday, Mata was preferred on the right flank to Jesse Lingard, a seemingly more natural winger. With James Miller filling in as Liverpool’s left-back, Louis van Gaal was presented with an opportunity that a speedy winger might exploit. In that context the deployment of the slower, perhaps even ponderous, Mata on the right made little sense.
Still, one can see some logic in Van Gaal’s move. Initially, Milner struggled positionally and Mata, United’s ‘false winger’, could have exploited the space. Not least because the Spaniard was largely left alone by Milner who was unsure when to close his opponent down.
On the other hand Lingard has not really played like a true winger either. Instead, he often tries to burst into the box from central areas as the ball comes in from the left. As a quasi-central midfielder on Thursday, the Englishman could have done the same thing from a slightly deeper position, while occasionally switching with Mata to confuse Milner – just like Thomas Müller did against Juventus to such effect on Wednesday.
The plan did not work though – perhaps because it was overly clever – and partly because Lingard just did not have a good grasp of the role expected of him. Guillermo Varela’s nightmare at right-back did not help matters either.
Crucially though, Mata gave away easy passes on the night, sapping any momentum that could have been gained. Indeed, in the second half United focused much more heavily on attacking down the left flank.
This problem is not new – Mata’s goalscoring, most notably at Anfield, has masked deficiencies in his game. Despite being an accomplished technician, Mata tends to lose possession in dangerous areas either by misplacing simple passes or attempting something overly ambitious.
Mata’s best form at the Reds coincided with Ander Herrera’s re-introduction to the first team last season. In this sense, among others, it was a critical mistake allowing Angel di Maria to become so disillusioned, as the Argentine’s world-class form for PSG emphasises. One suspects Sir Alex Ferguson would have been able to hold the Argentinean’s hand through the crisis.
Another interesting facet of the Mata story is that his best season at Chelsea was the one the where he played in an attacking midfield three alongside Eden Hazard and Oscar. With Oscar capable of playing across attacking midfield, the Brazilian and Mata frequently switched places in a fluid system uncharacteristic of then Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez.
At Chelsea, the musculature energy of Frank Lampard, Ramires and John Obi Mikel covered up Mata’s mistakes. This does not happen at United.
It is not hard to see why Mata might flourish in the role he had at Chelsea. Switching positions, when done right, confuses the opposition into conceding space by breaking apart the team structure. Mata enjoyed more time to consider a pass, while any misplaced effort was less dangerous with the opposition out of shape.
United simply cannot grant Mata such luxuries. Perhaps reverting to the last season’s 4-3-3, with Herrera in close support of Mata, would help matters – but Herrera has never been all that effective out on the right.
Then there is the question of United’s weaknesses at right-back. Antonio Valencia’s form in that role last season was emphasised by the player’s willingness to motor forward, while he almost never misplaced a pass. The Ecuadorian has lost the crossing ability of yesteryear, and may be defensively suspect, but he is a tireless worker. Today, the Reds cannot field a right-back to fill that functional role.
"It is not hard to see why Mata flourished in the role he had at Chelsea. Switching positions confused the opposition into conceding space and Mata enjoyed more time to consider a pass."
Alternatively, Van Gaal could use a 4-4-2 diamond, particularly with the spectacular rise of Marcus Rashford. Such drastic experimentation at this stage of the season would be unwise, though, while Mata did not take to the system last season. Meanwhile, United’s full-back department, so crucial in a 4-4-2 diamond, is even more threadbare than the last season’s.
In leaves Mata in a difficult position. As things stand, the Spaniard could very well be a liability at United and Van Gaal’s men are simply too jittery to afford carrying a player so prone to losing the ball in deep areas – even one as classy as Mata.
This observation is not entirely the 27-year-old’s fault. Mata is performing in a side that is not fully suited to his strengths; it is clear that he is a player who needs a side built around him. While this is true for most playmakers, there are very few worth the trouble.
This is, of course, why most number 10s in élite teams are actually forwards like Müller – and Van Gaal’s deployment of Rooney in the hole suggests that the Dutch manager subscribes to this school of thought.
But is Mata so good that United should attempt to build a side around him next season? For the Mata plan, United would have to commit to very specific purchases in the summer. For example, the squad is short of a player equally capable of playing behind a striker and out wide.
This plan would also mean committing to a 4-2-3-1 system when United’s central midfielders are not quite suited for a formation with two holding midfielders. To use Mata at 10, another central midfielder – in addition to the highly versatile attacking midfielder – must to be acquired.
Much is dependent on a new coach, because Van Gaal will surely not be at the helm come July. The new manager must also be open to the idea of using a playmaker for Mata to flourish.
Even if United defeats Manchester City at the Etihad this weekend, the reality is that the Reds will probably not be in the Champions League next season. This is, therefore, a time of extreme vulnerability at the club – prompting the question of whether United’s immediate future can be gambled on Mata coming good.
Assuming the Glazers will release the finances for squad improvement, as logic suggests they will, the natural area to improve is on the right-wing given the many central midfield options already at Old Trafford. A central defender is also a priority, while David De Gea may finally well leave in search of continental football. Elsewhere, a consistent right-back is also needed.
The conclusion is that while Mata is undeniably a good player, he is one with clear limitations – and the focus of a new manager may be elsewhere. These limitations, combined with the precarious situation at United, might well dictate that Mata is set aside in the name of progress.
After all, he was essentially a panic buy to soothe United fans unsatisfied with David Moyes. After two years it is hard to escape that assessment.