Responsibility may be an odd term to apply to player who was seemingly given a free role last Saturday. But this wasn’t the defensive responsibility that we usually think of, but an offensive role.
Mata’s responsibility was a much greater one. He was bestowed with the burden of creation. And he revelled under its weight.
Given the player’s ability, it’s perhaps surprising that it’s taken so long to produce such a performance. But unsurprisingly, it came without Wayne Rooney in the team.
The game against Newcastle was only the second time that Mata has started a Premier League game without Rooney beside him since moving to Manchester. The first was his first game in a red shirt, in which he also shone.
The problem with playing Mata and Rooney in the same team is that they like to operate in the same position; namely, everywhere.
Rooney has often been criticised for his lack of positional discipline, but this is only really a problem when he’s picked as a striker. At No. 10, there is greater freedom to roam. And on Saturday, Mata flourished in this freedom.
The Spaniard’s sole remit was apparently just ‘get on the ball’. The forward took more touches than any other player on the pitch (85), and these incidents were pretty evenly spread all over the field.
Like a player in an under-11’s match, Mata went where the ball went. He constantly showed for the ball and offered teammates an easy pass. When he invariably received it, he quickly moved the ball into better areas of the pitch for United, and proceeded to follow the play there.
The problem for David Moyes is that you can only have one player operating in this way, and the Scot is burdened with two. Mata made a strong case for being the one against Newcastle, and it would be ludicrous for United to pay £37m for the player and continue to deploy him in wide positions.
Given that Man United are paying Rooney £300k a week, you can imagine that they plan on playing him too. Again, it would be bizarre to spend such money on the player and maroon him out wide, which would suggest that Rooney has to start as a striker. While this may not be his best position, and requires more discipline of the forward than he likes, Wayne Rooney’s vintage season in 2009/10 came when playing up front.
Assuming David Moyes is following a similar logic, this would put serious doubts on the future of Robin van Persie. And United’s best performances since January – 3-0 against Olympiakos, 0-2 away to West Ham, 4-1 against Aston Villa and 4-0 at Newcastle – have come when only two of Rooney, Mata and van Persie have started. The exception to this being the 0-3 win at the Hawthorns, but in this game, one of the three, van Persie, was very poor.
Although such situations are often described as ‘good problems’, I don’t think there is such a thing when it comes to David Moyes’ first season at Manchester United.
On a more positive note, the growing relationship between Mata and Kagawa gives reason for optimism at Old Trafford. Against Newcastle, the pair again combined well, and Mata was effusive in his praise of his teammate after the game. And with Adnan Januzaj beside them, this was the best performance that we’ve seen from an attacking three at Manchester United all season.
However, it would be irresponsible not to note that this came against Newcastle, a team fast-becoming specialists in the 4-0 defeat, having lost three games by this scoreline since February. That’s not the mention the other three times that they’ve lost 3-0 in this same period.
Damn you, context.
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