Nine months ago, Spanish playmaker Juan Mata joined Manchester United from Chelsea in a deal thought to be worth around £37 million. His arrival sparked a wave of optimism at Old Trafford in the midst of a season of turmoil; that perhaps Manchester United could turn things around, perhaps David Moyes could be a success. Fast forward to the present day, and he could find himself in a tragically familiar situation to the one he found himself in towards the end of his spell at Chelsea: on the bench.
When Louis van Gaal implemented the 3-4-1-2 formation at Manchester United; a system that had yielded so much success for him during the World Cup with Netherlands; Juan Mata would have been firmly at the forefront of his thinking. The system accommodates two strikers and an attacking midfielder, making it the perfect formation in which to deploy United’s three best players at the time; namely Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata.
Van Gaal seemed to further secure Mata’s status as playmaker-in-chief further still; by signing off on the sale of Shinji Kagawa back to former club Borussia Dortmund for around £6 million, a genuine steal in the current market. Kagawa was perhaps Mata’s only serious competition for his place behind the strikers (with Januzaj’s best performances typically coming from wider positions). Juan could have been forgiven for thinking that this summer had been perfect from a personal point of view; even the purchase of Angel Di Maria didn’t look like it was going to dislodge him, with the Argentine preferring to play deeper in midfield, or out wide.
Then Manchester United signed Radamel Falcao.
On the face of it, this acquisition should not have given Mata any cause for concern; Falcao will increase the competition for places up front for sure, but Mata is a midfielder, and as such, should be unaffected. The problem for the Spaniard however, is thus: assuming van Gaal sticks with his favoured 3-4-1-2 formation; then only two of the three strikers will be given a place up front, begging the question: which of the immensely talented, extremely highly paid forwards do you drop? Is it Stretford End hero Robin van Persie, newly acquired world class striker Radamel Falcao, or club Captain Wayne Rooney? Unfortunately for Juan Mata, the obvious answer is to drop none of them. The simple solution for van Gaal to keep his star players happy is to deploy Rooney behind Falcao and van Persie, effectively forcing Mata out of the team.
This course of action is by no means a certainty; van Gaal has proven throughout his career that he is not afraid to drop a perceived ‘star player’. He famously dropped Rivaldo in his time at Barcelona, the season after the Brazilian great won the FIFA World Player of the Year award. In the 2009-2010, while manager of Bayern, van Gaal dropped star striker Luca Toni who had scored 38 goals in 60 games in the Bundesliga prior to the Dutchman’s arrival. Toni was a hero in Munich, and the fans were not pleased when van Gaal eventually forced the Italian out of the club in December 2009, sending him on loan to Roma. Louis van Gaal was vindicated however, when he lifted the Bundesliga in May, and came close to a European triumph, losing the 2010 Champions League final to Jose Mourinho’s Internazionale. It is not out of the question that van Persie or Rooney could be the next big name player to find themselves on the bench, but Mata seems the more obvious candidate for the drop, given the recent captaincy bestowed on Wayne Rooney.
There have been recent rumours that Italian giants Juventus have an interest in signing the Spaniard, and given our recent reported interest in their midfield powerhouse Arturo Vidal, the benefits of doing a deal do seem obvious, but would it be beneficial to ‘cash in’ on Juan Mata? While any offer with the potential inclusion of Vidal is tempting, the fact is that over a season, van Persie, Rooney and Falcao will all pick up injuries; they always do. This means that while Mata may no longer be an automatic first choice, there will still be ample opportunity for him to play, and selling him would perhaps be leaving us short of cover in a key position. The other thing to consider is that we have not yet seen the best of Mata in a United shirt, there’s a lot more to come from our enigmatic Spaniard.
Under David Moyes, Mata was often deployed on either of the wings, a position that doesn’t really suit him, given his deficiency of real pace, and his lack of tenacity in tracking back. Under van Gaal, he has started all three league games in his favoured position, but with Rooney and van Persie lacking any real chemistry as a strike partnership up front, he has found a lack of intelligent movement ahead of him, forcing a lot of his passing to be sideways. Mata’s passing game relies on pace around him, as well as willing runners exploiting space in behind defenders. With Angel Di Maria approaching full fitness, and returns from injury on the horizon for Luke Shaw, Rafael da Silva and Ander Herrera – not to mention to inclusion of Radamel Falcao – Mata shouldn’t be short of willing runners in attacking positions, and then he will truly be able to shine.
It is impossible to guess the intentions of Louis van Gaal, and Mata could well remain a starter throughout the season, but with the inclusion of Radamel Falcao, it seems more and more likely that last seasons key man could be this season’s fringe player. This would be an immense shame for a player as talented as Juan Mata, but when a club invests so heavily on world class attacking talent, it is only natural that there are casualties in the squad. Opportunities will surely come through injuries, and it’s clear that there’s a top level player in Mata, that’s so close to coming out, but he may have to be patient to wait for his chance. Mata showed towards the end of his time at Chelsea that he is a player who needs to play, and if there’s any weight behind Juventus’ interest then he may find an offer hard to refuse.