Last night, Juan Mata made his first appearance for Manchester United in what will go down in the history books as arguably the most important debut in David Moyes’ managerial career.
Bought from Premier League rivals Chelsea for a £37million, smashing the Red Devils’ previous record transfer fee for Dimitar Berbatov in 2009 by £7million, there’s nothing customary about United’s capture of the Spain international.
But languishing in seventh place in the Premier League table and the title defence already over, Mata has been brought into the United fold to provide what’s been dubbed by many as the ‘Ozil effect’.
Yes, he provides the one thing David Moyes’s side have lacked this season – creativity going forward – but in replication of Arsenal’s scalp for the German international in late summer, United’s new signing is intended to bring a lift in morale to the Carrington camp, as well as demonstrate that Sir Alex Ferguson’s predecessor is capable of landing high-profile targets, following doubts over his numerous failed transfer escapades in the summer.
But could there yet be another layer to this transfer onion than meets the eye? Peel past the transfer fee, the interesting psychological battle between Jose Mourinho and United, the notion of the ‘Ozil effect’ and the Red Devils’ need for added star quality – is Mata’s arrival the first sign of a philosophical revolution at Old Trafford?
When news broke that Chelsea had accepted the £37million offer, speculation was rife regarding the futures of Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie. With just 18 months left on his current deal, many suspected signing a new No.10 would instigate the England international’s summer departure.
But the tabloids were quickly flooded with news that United’s most in-form player this season, claiming nine goals and nine assists in 16 Premier League starts, had agreed a new deal worth £65million, according to the Mirror, in essence making him the figurehead of a new era for the Red Devils.
Speculation quickly switched to his strike-partner and understandably so. At 30 years of age and missing much of the current campaign through injury, it makes far more sense to move an ageing Van Persie on than a player who is two years his junior.
But the Dutch international scored within six minutes of his return to first team action last night and won United the Premier League title almost singlehandedly last season. Bearing in mind Van Persie dons a haul of 41 goals in 65 appearances for the Red Devils, including eight in eleven this season, and still has two years left on his contract, it seems unlikely he’ll be ousted in the summer.
Which bears the question – where do all these attacking talents fit into the United starting XI?
Room has to be made for young wizzkid Adnan Januzaj too, and although many Red Devils supporters would like to see a mass exodus in the summer, it seems unlikely none of the club’s lukewarm performers – namely Ashley Young, Nani, Antoino Valenca, Shinji Kagawa and Marouane Fellaini -will be there next season, especially considering several were key contributors to United’s Premier League title capture last term. Moyes is also obliged to use these players in some capacity until the summer.
Mata could play on the wing, as he often did at Valencia and continues to do so for the Spanish national team. But as Jose Mourinho found, the Spaniard doesn’t possess the work-rate to do so at a top Premier League club, and it seems a waste to field a £37million signing in his less favoured position when Moyes could have easily invested the record-breaking sum in a natural wide man. Marco Reus or Antoine Griezmann, for example.
Rather, it’s my speculation that this is the start of a new tactical era at Old Trafford, throwing United’s traditional philosophies of two natural wingers and two natural strikers by the wayside, and opting for a transitional attacking trio model currently favoured by Chelsea and Arsenal.
Despite the several tactical similarities between Everton under Moyes and Manchester United under Ferguson, with both clubs tending to adopt a direct, formative and English approach, Jamie Carragher pointed out at the beginning of the season one clear difference between the two – the use of wide players.
At Old Trafford, you have the likes of Nani and Valencia, two touchline-hugging wide men. Span back further into the Red Devils’ history, and names such as Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jordi Cruyff, Bryan Robson and David Beckham come to mind, all of whom fit that mould even if they come with their own individual variation.
But Everton’s wide play over the last few years has been defined by Steven Piennar, Leon Osman, James McFadden, Mikel Arteta, Steven Naismith and Kevin Mirallas, only the latter of which you’d comfortably categorise as a natural winger. Rather, it was via their relationships with their full-backs that spawned the Toffees’ creativity and dynamism going forward.
The same can be said for United – Rafael and Patrice Evra are both fairly adventurous and roaming – but the difference in style of wideman is incredibly telling of the tactical contrast between Moyes and his predecessor.
At the same time, consider some of Moyes’ transfer targets of late – Atletico Madrid’s Koke, Athletic Bilbao’s Ander Herrera, Cruzeiro’s Everton Ribeiro and Napoli’s Marek Hamsik. None of which you’d feel comfortable fielding on either flank of a flat midfield four.
The switch to a formation closer to a narrow 4-2-3-1 would be far more accommodating to the likes of Mata, Kagawa, Ashley Young, Rooney, Wilfried Zaha and Januzaj, in addition to the aforementioned transfer targets, and give room for them to be included in the same starting line-up. It would even allow for Fellaini to play further forward in close tandem alongside two conventional attackers, seeing as he’s failed to have the desired effect in deep midfield.
The difference in philosophy I’m suggesting may be slight but it’s historical significance should not be downplayed – natural wingers are a part of the Manchester United tapestry, and a trademark of their more famous trophy-winning sides.
It’s a characteristic of United’s play that Ferguson only ever toyed with on a temporary basis, but with the opportunity for change undoubtedly upon Moyes in his first campaign Old Trafford, the timing is right to break from tactical tradition. Juan Mata’s acquisition could be the first step in that process.