During Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Liverpool on Sunday – arguably the biggest result of their season thus far – the star of the show was, indisputably, Spain international Juan Mata.
The 26 year-old opened the scoring after 14 minutes with a deft finish into Simon Mignolet’s inside netting and followed it up the second half with an acrobatic stunner, twisting and turning his body mid-air to volley past the Reds No.1.
Not every display has been so significant and pomp since the former Chelsea star moved to Old Trafford for £37.5million in January 2014 however; his relationship with the starting XI has been a flirtatious one at best, managing just 33 starts out of a possible 46 in the Premier League over the last 18 months, with David Moyes and Louis van Gaal both struggling to find the diminutive attacker a regular role in their respective sides.
Those disrupting absences have only further aggravated two major lingering concerns regarding the midfielder; firstly, that Mata’s athletic and defensive limits puts too much of a burden on the rest of the team and, at times, render the attack rather dysfunctional; and secondly, that the Red Devils purchased the Spaniard for the wrong reasons – particularly, as a name to prove Moyes could attract top players to Old Trafford amid a January-window-poor-form-infused panic.
No doubt, Mata’s a bit of a luxury player. He lacks work rate and defensive awareness, which is exactly why Jose Mourinho was more than happy to let him leave Stamford Bridge – even to one of Chelsea’s biggest divisional rivals. After reminding the Premier League of his class during that impressive showing against Liverpool however, a real make-or-break match for the Red Devils’ Champions League bid, Louis van Gaal is faced with a dilemma; is Juan Mata a luxury player worth accommodating for?
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Although Mata’s world-class technical quality is often demonstrated through a plethora of diverse capacities, his defining strength remains output. He’s already bagged 13 goals and seven assists in just 40 appearances for the Red Devils, despite his inconsistent presence in the starting XI and regular reshuffles around the midfield, and since arriving in England from Valencia in summer 2011 has claimed the most goals and assists combined, a whopping 65, of any Premier League midfielder, trumping David Silva, Yaya Toure, Eden Hazard and even Steven Gerrard. Likewise, he now boasts the best goals-per-game ratio of any United midfielder in the Premier League era, barring Cristiano Ronaldo.
Goals aren’t an immediate concern for the Red Devils; they’re currently fourth in terms of goals scored in the Premier League and boast, at least on paper, one of the most formidable strikeforces in Europe through Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao. Yet, that kind of firepower and supply from midfield, especially when combined with Mata’s tidiness on the ball, this term recording the best pass completion rate of any United player at 89.6% and the best long-ball accuracy of any Premier League player, 81.5%, is difficult to ignore.
The problem however, is where to fit Mata in. His best position, without question, remains at No.10, getting him as close to the goal as possible and central to build up play, but long-term, that role appears to belong to club captain Wayne Rooney. Of late, even the cumbersome Marouane Fellaini’s been selected over the Spain international at the tip of midfield. Likewise, although the 26 year-old netted twice from the right wing on Sunday, he lacks the speed and power of his many United predecessors, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia, only adding to the Red Devils’ limited penetration, the absence of a genuine threat in behind opposition defences, going forward.
Furthermore, it now seems inevitable that Mata’s inclusion will have to come at the expense of United’s other flagship stars. Against Liverpool, Angel di Maria, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao were all absent from the starting line-up, rendering Mata and Rooney as the only stand-out attacking talents. In comparison, when LvG attempted to squeeze Mata, Rooney, Falcao and Di Maria into the same XI against Southampton in January, United lost one-nil, failing to record a single shot on target. Too many creative forces tends to leave the Red Devils rather congested, over-complicated and narrow in the final third, resulting in an imbalance throughout the team.
Few dispute Mata to be a sensational talent however; a two-time Player of the Year award-winner at Chelsea and a 34-time representative of the Spanish national team, winning a World Cup and European Championship with La Roja in 2010 and 2012. Failing to forge him a habitual position in the starting XI seems like an unnecessary waste of both quality and finance, as if Moyes and van Gaal, somehow, have both missed the same trick.
Clearly however, the entire balance of the team needs to be addressed to accommodate the midfielder – particularly, a far superior, better-organised, defence and midfield behind him. Although it will likely be a particularly big summer for United anyway, making signings that compliment the Spaniard, playing to his strengths whilst hiding his weaknesses, should be one of Louis van Gaal’s immediate priorities.