David Moyes is reportedly set to make a £37 million bid for Chelsea’s Juan Mata, inspiring comparisons with Arsenal’s summer capture of Mesut Ozil. But would such a move galvanise Manchester United or prove to be another bit of window dressing used to hide their true flaws?
According to both The Telegraph and The Independent, the Spaniard will soon be the subject of an imminent, landmark approach by the Premier League’s beleaguered champions and potentially January’s biggest transfer could be on the cards.
However, Gary Neville has questioned whether the Spaniard is what Manchester United need, telling Sky Sports: "Does he fit with what I would call the typical philosophy of Manchester United? I would say no."
But below are three reasons why the playmaker could be an ideal remedy to help lift the post-Ferguson doom and gloom from Old Trafford in 2014.
A Foil For Januzaj
With Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney sidelined through injury, Adnan Januzaj has emerged as the team’s catalyst, main playmaker and most likely match-winner all rolled into one. It seems as though almost every attack is now played through the Kosovar-Albanian when he’s on the field, with his fearless initiative and appetite for on-the-ball responsibility thrusting him into becoming United’s next great talisman.
Yet at just 18 years of age, and with only 16 league appearances to his name, the obviously talented youngster faces burn out if he is forced to continue carrying the club’s season until May’s likely-to-be bitter end. Enter Mata.
Prior to the return of Jose Mourinho to Stamford Bridge, the ex-Valencia winger was arguably Chelsea’s key player, running games from behind the strikers, linking up play with his deeper-lying team-mates and often driving the Blues to victory with goals and assists galore.
In United’s 2-0 win over Swansea City earlier in January, Januzaj benefited from the presence of Shinji Kagawa, with the team’s collective performance showing a marked improvement once they switched into their natural positions after half-time. Redeployed in the hole, the Japanese’s central positioning allowed Januzaj more license to roam on and off the flanks.
Mata would be able to provide a similar function if he were to make the move north, having enjoyed a strong understanding with the comparably prodigious Eden Hazard last season while playing centrally.
United’s best football has almost always come through fluidity and the Spaniard’s arrival would only feed into the position-switching and changeable attack patterns that help the likes of Januzaj and Van Persie play to their full potential.
Signing Mata up to help shoulder some of the burden from Januzaj and co. may well cut game time from Kagawa in the short term but with exit rumours still hanging over Rooney’s future at Old Trafford, ultimately the Japanese might not be the man to be supplanted.
This season, Rooney has been the club’s most effective player, contributing nine goals and nine assists in 17 league appearances, with an additional 31 key passes to boot. Yet his directness, both as a provider and scorer, has sometimes undermined the more patient play of those around him.
The Englishman can be rather clumsy as a No. 10 with his frustratingly inconsistent first touch and questionable passing ability over short distances. As a replacement in that sense, Mata would arguably be an upgrade as a player more naturally suited to life in the hole.
Besides his stats as a goal conjurer, combativeness is often cited as Rooney’s other great strength, and while even last season Mata was unable to match the striker in terms of average defensive actions per game—one versus three—he isn’t exactly a meek passenger.
Mourinho may have been keen to cultivate a image of the Spaniard as a lazy flair player upon his return to English football but in a more pivotal role under Roberto Di Matteo and Rafael Benitez, he could regularly be found digging out interceptions and tackles in his own half.
Though he wouldn't be able to fully replicate the robustness of Rooney’s supportive link-up play when dropping deep into midfield, Mata’s reliability as a more lithe and nuanced playmaker would bring other options.
With the team’s attacking impetus concentrated on the likes of Januzaj and Mata in the final third, United’s central midfielders would be able to lose any pretensions of being creative, and focussing instead on stodging up the team’s spine.
The likes of Tom Cleverley, Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick have all struggled to find their feet so far season and could benefit from the less difficult tasks of keeping things tight and tidy rather than attempting to play a complete game from deep. Without the required quality to play a flowing, box-to-box game, United’s midfield may as well stay conservative and leave the inspiration to those who can provide it.
It’s also worth noting the stinging deliveries provided by Mata from set-piece situations, especially considering Rooney’s recent improvement in this area. David De Gea would likely prefer to have his fellow countryman on his side rather than having to face him once again in their dead ball duels.
World Cup Motivation
Finally, with his opportunities cut short of late at Chelsea, and squad slots in the Spanish national team at premium heading into the 2014 World Cup, signing Mata for the run-in could be the perfect shot in the arm United need to secure fourth place.
With his mind and body focused on getting a role in Vicente Del Bosque’s squad for the summer, the Chelsea man would likely be fixated on grabbing the headlines and impressing observers at every turn.
It’s also likely that he would be granted the platform to make such an impact at United, with Januzaj, Rooney and Van Persie’s best positions being complementary to his own rather than a threat to his game time like Oscar and Eden Hazard at Stamford Bridge.
United need more players ready and able to take the initiative during games and Mata, committed to his own personal campaign for World Cup football in the summer, would be a potent new asset for Moyes should he be able to acquire him in January.