To take you back to the January window, amid a debasing crisis in confidence, Manchester United sought a saviour in the form of then-Chelsea midfielder Juan Mata. The Premier League champions forked out £37million on the Spain international – the most expensive purchase in Old Trafford’s long and prestigious transfer history.
Indeed, snapping up the 25 year-old was an opportunity the Carrington camp felt they couldn’t ignore; a two-time Chelsea Player of the Year, an attacking midfielder who claimed twelve goals and twelve assists in the Premier League last season, a natural playmaker who could rectify United’s disturbing lack of creativity going forward, available for a fair price due to Jose Mourinho’s concerns over a lack of defensive work-rate – Mata had all the makings of an acquisition that would not only improve performances on the pitch, but furthermore generate confidence in David Moyes’ ability to attract top quality players. The theory goes that the Spaniard’s January arrival will make United’s planned summer swoops a considerably smoother process.
But a splatter of matches into Mata’s Red Devils career and he’s yet to have the desired effect. In fact, the midfielder’s new club have won just three times from seven games in his presence, and including last week’s Champions League defeat to Olympiacos, they’ve lost three matches out of a possible eight following Mata’s arrival.
I’m not suggesting this is in any way due to the Spaniard’s form – his three assists in seven Premier League outings is a more potent contribution than the vast majority of the Old Trafford roster this season, and firmly in line of what we’ve come to expect from Mata over the course of the last few years.
Yet, the more I consider Manchester United’s £37million acquisition, the less I feel I genuinely understand it. From David Moyes’ perspective, he’s paid a justifiable fee for a talented player, and certainly Mata is a player of far too much quality to be a cameo performer on the Chelsea bench.
But from Jose Mourinho’s perspective, he must have thought Santa had delivered his Christmas present a month too late. Here’s Manchester United, splashing out a club record fee on a player that the Portuguese clearly thought wasn’t good enough for the Blues first team. Debates over Mata’s defensive contribution aside, and although that obviously relates to Chelsea’s mechanical style under Mourinho, the Stamford Bridge boss wouldn’t have let Mata leave if he wasn’t certain of having greater, more useful talent already at his disposal.
Considering the £37million deal in that context, it hardly portrays Manchester United as a club in full control of its faculties. One could even dig out the old adage of ‘panic buying’.
Perhaps that critique may seem rather sensationalist and harsh; admittedly, Juan Mata would be an automatic pick for most Champions League sides, and had it not been for United’s precarious league position, the chances are that Mourinho would have refused to sell. Back in the summer, he blocked Demba Ba’s planned move to Arsenal precisely out of fear of strengthening a title rival.
But where does Mata actually fit into the Manchester United starting line-up? The club already have a permanent No.10 in Wayne Rooney, who is used in that position because of the world-class quality Robin Van Persie provides up front. The issue was expected to be resolved in the next transfer window, when it was believed that one of the Red Devils’ two star front-men would be swiftly moved on. But since that theory came to light, Wazza Roo has been tied down to a new £300k per-week contract – the most lucrative in Premier League history – and RVP has publicly insisted that he’ll be on staying at Old Trafford for the foreseeable future, potentially beyond his current contract which expires in 2016.
David Moyes boldly declared upon Mata’s arrival that he has no problem with utilising the Spain international on the wing, in not-so-subtle defiance of Mourinho’s view on the issue. As we witnessed against Liverpool last weekend however, having arguably the only player on the Red Devils roster capable of controlling the game via the ball is an incredible waste.
The former Chelsea midfielder is by far at his most impactful when pulling the strings in the centre of the pitch. Pushed out to left midfield against the Anfield side, the entire game passed Mata by, and as Mourinho had previously warned, his lack of defensive coverage for Patrice Evra and United’s engine room was a huge problem. The Spaniard’s inability to effectively tuck-in gave Liverpool complete control in the middle of the park, and his lack of natural pace left the Red Devils unable to penetrate on the counter attack.
Are Manchester United going to let this pattern dangerously repeat itself? Is David Moyes prepared to let United’s club record signing spend his entire Old Trafford career floundering on the wing for the sake of Wayne Rooney? Mata’s arrival has only caused further selection headaches for Moyes, who has already spent the vast majority of his first season with the Premier League champions trying to decide on what constitutes his best starting XI.
All of these troubling dilemmas stem from the fact that the 25 year-old wasn’t the player Manchester United actually needed in January. Their creativity crisis can be traced to the engine room and out wide – throwing another central attacking midfielder into the mix hasn’t solved anything, or even postponed this intrinsic flaw until the summer.
United apologists will be quick to point out that central midfielders and wingers who can parallel Mata’s proven quality were few and far between during the January window. But in turn, that only amplifies the argument that the Carrington club may have been better off holding onto their money.
It’s not that the Red Devils don’t have the money to spend, and it’s not that Juan Mata isn’t an exceptional talent worthy of playing for such a prestigious, silverware-laden club.
But David Moyes has now invested £37million in a player who will never be able to fulfil his most ultimate purpose in the United starting XI or adequately occupy the Red Devils’ void of talent on the wings. Now that both Van Persie and Wayne Rooney have committed their long-term futures to the club, this perplexing conundrum appears a long way off resolution.
With that in mind, would it be so daring, bold or controversial to label the Premier League champions’ club record signing, for lack of more fitting diction, a mistake?