David Moyes was looking very relaxed last night. No wonder. For once his team had negotiated a home fixture without alarm.
True, they had never looked as if they were about to tear down the footballing citadel. True they are still a long, long way off that fourth place (and if Liverpool continue to play like they did in the Mersey derby, it may be already an unbridgeable divide). But this was more like the way a Manchester United team ought to behave at Old Trafford: they were playing with something approaching conviction.
It was pretty obvious where that came from. It was sourced entirely by the two men playing in attack. The front pairing was on a very different level from that which had been struggling of late.
The Cardiff manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might have claimed that his team would have faced a tricky task even if they had encountered a strike partnership of Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck. But let’s face it, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata offered a rather more challenging proposition. This, for the first time in a while, was the real thing at Old Trafford.
In his first outing, Mata, wearing the number eight shirt, looked as if he had been running the United team for years. There were no first-night nerves. Wanting the ball, moving around to receive it, passing it to colleagues in space, he was the man in charge. His effervescence injected a sense of urgency into a side latterly marooned on the back foot.
In short he was doing the job Moyes was told when he took over as United manager that Shinji Kagawa would do. Sadly, the Japanese has recently been delivering that sort of service only in the imagination of football hipsters.
Mata, though, was doing it on a football field. And you could see what his arrival had done to the rest of the team. Suddenly they had someone to play off. Suddenly they had someone with a bit of imagination and nerve. Van Persie was so excited about the prospects of playing with the Spaniard he even declared himself fit.
From a distance, watching his team’s struggles this winter, what it seemed Moyes needed to rebuild his side was something very different. A new left-back, a couple of decent centre-backs, a dynamic central midfielder and a decent right winger seemed more crucial priorities than another tricksy No. 10. It seems a bit extravagant trying to gild the lily before you’ve even planted the seed.
Watching Mata in action last night, however, you could see what a shrewd buy he was. You could see he was, in fact, exactly what Moyes needed. As Chelsea fans long ago recognised, he is the kind of player who makes his colleagues play better. Sure, the priorities might have appeared to lie elsewhere, but Mata has already made this team better.
His arrival also sends out an important signal about the kind of team Moyes wants to build at Old Trafford. Speaking after the game last night, he said that if he looked happy it was solely because of the gathering of three points. He was nowhere near content with the team. It was nothing like where he wanted it to be; nothing like the kind of football he wanted it to play.
It has never been easy to identify exactly wants Moyes wants from a team. While we know what Arsene Wenger is trying to do, and we have a shrewd idea of the kind of football Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez are seeking to impose on any side they coach, we have no real understanding of Moyes’s footballing philosophy.
After 11 years at Everton, the best description of him is that of someone who will do whatever is necessary within his limitations to produce a result. He will encourage passing, but if route one is a more efficient way of proceeding, then so be it. And above all, he sets out his teams not to lose. Caution is his way; a football pragmatist not a football idealist.
But the purchase of Mata suggests something else. An acute awareness of the institution he is now guiding if nothing else. Which means he wants to attack, he wants to produce goals, he wants to entertain. He is anxious to maintain the tradition of bringing light into the lives of the club’s followers that drove Sir Matt Busby.
But to do that, he needs the personnel. With Van Persie and Wayne Rooney in the side last season, his predecessor managed to preserve a sense of progress. Without them over the turn of the year, the creativity gap at the heart of the enterprise has been horribly exposed.
Moyes soon understood that relying on an 18-year-old as your sole source of ingenuity – no matter how elevated Adnan Januzaj’s potential – was no way to develop. So, while most of us thought he needed someone who might be able to get their foot in and break up opposition attacks, he understood his priority was for someone to instigate creativity. And for once, his timing was spot on.
With Van Persie and Rooney returning to fitness, he suddenly appears to have a creativity surplus. That uplift alone is sizeable return from £37.1 million outlay.
Mata is but the start, Moyes insists. He has an idea of the team he wants to build and the twinkle-toed Spaniard is the first piece in the jigsaw. Which makes all the hand-wringing and hair-tearing, all the whining and short-termism that has soundtracked United’s stutters this season all the more ridiculous.
Sure, there are problems. Serious, institutional problems. But as his one January purchase has demonstrated, Moyes was never that far off the pace.