Manchester United hope the Netherlands’ World Cup charge will be over as soon as possible, accordingly allowing incoming manager Louis van Gaal to focus his attentions fully on arguably the most important summer transfer window in the club’s history. That reported £200million war-chest won’t spend itself.
But in my opinion, a more perplexing dilemma for the Red Devils than their potential incomings is the immediate fate of three players – Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata.
Philosophically, throughout his 25-year management career, barring a brief flirtation with 4-4-2 during his AZ Alkmaar days, the Holland gaffer has continually championed a progressive 4-3-3 formation, and the natural assumption is that he’ll bring that style and structure of play with him to Old Trafford.
The only problem is that resultantly, from Rooney, RVP and Mata, van Gaal has the task of fitting two strikers and two attacking midfielders (the Englishman capable of playing as both) into a formation that has room for just one centre-forward and no outright No.10. The situation becomes further complicated when you include Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj into the equation too.
It’s a conundrum he’s inherited from David Moyes, who struggled to find an effective role for Mata in United’s starting line-up immediately following his record-breaking £37million move from Chelsea in January.
Fielding him out wide only caused more problems than it solved; the game slowly passing the Spaniard by, his lack of defensive discipline dangerously exposing his full-back and central midfield, his athletic limits leaving the Red Devils unable to penetrate going forward. It’s no great coincidence that Mata’s form dramatically improved after van Persie was sidelined in March, allowing him to revert to the central capacity that brought him such success at Chelsea and Rooney to be pushed further forward, leading to a six-goal burst in six straight appearances for the Spain international.
Had David Moyes not been sacked in late April, I remain certain in the prediction that he would have parted company with Robin van Persie this summer, despite publicly stating otherwise earlier in the season. Juan Mata had just broken Manchester United’s transfer record, Wayne Rooney had just been anointed the Premier League’s most lucratively-paid player of all time and the poster boy of the post-Ferguson era at Old Trafford, yet he was well aware that all three couldn’t co-exist in the same starting XI without hazardous compromise.
By default, van Persie, for all his goals and world-class proficiency, now 30 years of age and his hair already greying, was easily the most expendable.
That analysis still rings true – of Manchester United’s three leading stars, the Netherlands international’s hypothetical departure would cause by far the least upheaval. But now the situation has changed; Louis van Gaal is the new King of Old Trafford and Robin van Persie, appointed Oranje captain by the United monarch in 2013, is his darling Prince. In regards to the lone striking role, the 30 year-old will soon become the only game in town and he’s now a leading candidate for the vacant captaincy too.
In theory, Mata and Rooney are both very versatile players. The former earned his reputation as a winger at Valencia, whilst the latter has featured sporadically in deep midfield and out wide during various points of his career.
But van Gaal has always favoured natural width and pace on the flanks, as have Manchester United – as David Moyes remarked earlier this season, wing-play is part of the Carrington club’s DNA – and in that regard, neither quite fit the bill. Likewise, the England international’s documented disillusionment last summer, almost leading to a move to Chelsea and eventually his new bumper contract, was apparently due to Sir Alex Ferguson playing him in central midfield, suggesting he won’t take kindly if van Gaal were to offer the same transition. Mata also, although a talented player, his abject defensive work-rate will be an issue in the middle of the park.
Potentially, working on the assumption that a more defensive option will be added to United’s engine room this summer, with a resident anchorman also a van Gaal trademark, there will be room for either Mata or Rooney as the most forward-thinking midfielder – an Enganche if you are big on old-fashioned terminologies. But no variation of the United manager’s tried and trusted three-man midfield will be able to compensate for both.
The only alternative? One of the two is eventually moved on. Speculatively perhaps, but working from the theory that Jose Mourinho is a reactionary child of the van Gaal school of thought, the Express have already reported that the 62 year-old is prepared to sell the Spain international after just six months at Old Trafford, with Barcelona the likeliest destination. Overall, it wouldn’t be hugely surprising – Mata is by definition a luxury player and was bought out of panic amid Manchester United’s lowest low for nearly three decades.
Then again, if there’s one player that I can already foresee LVG falling out with, it’s undoubtedly Wayne Rooney – to many, and potentially even van Gaal, an underperforming, overpaid, egotist who has held the club to ransom twice in the last three years. Right now, the 28 year-old’s record-breaking contract makes him too powerful to be simply thrown on the transfer scrapheap by the new Red Devils boss. But a disagreement over where he fits into the United first team could well be the ammunition van Gaal needs to trigger his departure.