Juan Mata is a very good player, but a very odd signing.
When Manchester United paid £37m for the 26-year-old, they effectively secured Mata for what tend to be the best years of a player’s career. And given how good the Spaniard had been for Chelsea over the past two seasons, the idea of a ‘vintage Mata’ is certainly an appealing one. Why United would want a player like Mata was obvious. But why United wanted a player like Mata, when they already had a player like Mata, is not so clear.
Wayne Rooney plays where Juan Mata wants to play. And neither is very effective when played elsewhere. One could fit both into a team by playing Rooney as the lone striker with Mata behind, but Rooney’s tendency to drop back into the pocket makes the pair an uncomfortable No. 9 and No. 10 combination. Awkwardness aside, playing Rooney up front on his own would also leave no room in the Manchester United side for the team’s best centre-forward: Robin van Persie. And given that the Dutchman is 30-years-old and injury prone, United would get little of the £20m they paid to Arsenal in return if the club were to attempt to move him on.
The logical conclusion from the signing of Juan Mata was that Manchester United were bringing in an early replacement for Wayne Rooney. The striker had just spent the previous summer flirting with rivals Chelsea, and with two years remaining on his contract at 28-years-old, this summer represented Man United’s last opportunity to get a real cash return on the forward.
Incredibly, less than a month after Manchester United bought Mata, Wayne Rooney would sign a new five-year contract at the club worth £300k a week. While in theory, the club had succeeded in securing two quality players on long-term contracts, what they had effectively guaranteed for themselves was a five-year selection headache.
There is no obvious team including Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata that enables both to be at their most effective. And given that Manchester United are paying the pair a combined salary somewhere in the region of half a million pounds a week, effectiveness would be about the minimum required.
David Moyes’ early attempts to fit the two players into one team by moving Mata out wide were largely unsuccessful. This is partly because Mata isn’t a very good winger, and partly because he ignored his positional responsibility and wandered in-field. The result was both Rooney and Mata were sub par, and Juan Mata has only really looked like Juan Mata for Manchester United in the games in which Rooney has been unavailable.
Given that Moyes clearly had no plan of how to fit Mata and Rooney in the same team, but sanctioned the signings of both regardless, we can only conclude that the Scot didn’t have the ability to say no.
David Moyes’ flatterings of Wayne Rooney during his time at Manchester United were awkward. Apparently desperate to show there were no bad feelings between the pair, Moyes indulged his striker from day one. The Scot’s selection of Rooney for the Champions League second leg against Bayern was desperate, but apparent inability to substitute the injured player was embarrassing.
David Moyes never looked comfortable in the role of Manchester United manager. And he acted like a man unsure of himself. There was never a sense that Moyes had a long-term vision for the club, and if he did, then apparently he didn’t have the confidence to try and implement it. Paralyzed by insecurity, the manager just tried not to rock the boat and hoped that following Ferguson’s blueprint would lead to similar results.
It didn’t. And Moyes’ indecisiveness has left the club with a five-year selection headache.
A season out of the Champions League is bad for Manchester United, but it’s the dual signing of Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney that may prove to have the most lasting damage at the club.