Most people have blamed Manchester United's disastrous defeat on the opening day of the season on Louis van Gaal's tactics, Wayne Rooney's captaincy and Ed Woodward's transfer market failures. But our friends at Squawka.com believe there is another culprit: United's key playmaker, Juan Mata.
- - -
Manchester United fans went into the season hoping Louis van Gaal would have the opposite effect to David Moyes. So they'll have been bitterly disappointed to see how literally the football gods had interpreted their prayers.
This time last year, Moyes's Red Devils roared to a 4-1 away victory over Swansea on the opening day - but United's new-look side under the Dutchman, with the benefit of home turf, got off to a terrible start with a 2-1 defeat by the Swans.
If subsequent events under Moyes taught us anything, however, it’s that opening fixtures aren’t always a reliable forecast for the remaining 37 games of the campaign - and transfer activity will have a major say in how Van Gaal’s debut season in England pans out.
Though he needs new players Van Gaal already possesses an array of talent, and ensuring they perform to the standard expected will be the key factor upon which the all-conquering Dutchman is eventually judged.
Among the principle shortcomings levelled at Moyes was his handling of Juan Mata; and given the substantial expense to which United went in order to sign the ex-Chelsea star, ensuring the Spaniard realises his potential will be high on Van Gaal’s to-do list.
As a result of his past experiences with Moyes, as well as with Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, Mata has come to be viewed as an instrument which demands a finely-tuned understanding and appreciation. Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 system was supposed to be a means of unlocking the £37 million man’s abilities, as well as a way of addressing the tactical conundrum that is Wayne Rooney.
The problem, though, is that Van Gaal's tactical switch has created problems elsewhere. The system requires at least four capable centre-backs (three starters and one as cover). The jury is out as to whether United even have two players in that bracket, and Jonny Evan’s history with injury is extensive.
Even more pertinent to Mata’s underperformance against Swansea is the club's lack of serviceable wing-backs, a position that has now become quite specialist given the universality of the flat back four.
Jesse Lingard’s placement in the role seemed enforced anyway, and so when the youngster was forced off through injury in the 25th minute, subsequent adjustments meant Van Gaal’s shiny new footballing framework drifted into 4-4-2 territory.
The result bore some of the symptoms so agonisingly obvious during the period in which Mata struggled under Moyes.
Though his passing was generally consistent either side of the half-time whistle – and the accompanying enforced tactical shift – Mata failed to create any goalscoring opportunities from open play after the interval. It must be said, however, that the creative output on display from the Red Devils’ record signing was, in general, below what’s come to be expected, anyway.
Precision is nothing if not applied to meaningful distribution and Mata impacted the tempo of the game very rarely throughout. The midfielder successfully executed 44 passes against the Swans, though just over half of those (23) went forward.
What’s more, Mata’s crossing throughout was mixed. The 26-year-old playmaker took the corner eventually turned in through Rooney’s unorthodox overhead finish, though seven of nine were batted away by Swans defenders.
This was, ultimately, the extent of Mata’s contribution, along with one shot, one tackle and one header.
Having twice won Chelsea’s Player of the Year award and generally impressed during his time in the Premier League, there is undoubtedly much more to come from Mata.
Yet now, if he fails, he will do so under the unimpeachable Van Gaal. And with the Dutchman at the helm rather than Moyes, Mata can expect the criticism to hand on his own shoulders, rather than see it transferred to the Scotsman as he did from January to May.
There is a sense of wish fulfilment going into what’s meant to be a new United era, in that the new system gives Mata the chance to perform in his favoured role.
And it’s crucial that the Spaniard seizes this chance going forwards. If he fails once again to hit form, there will be no excuses and nowhere to hide this time.
- Sports & Recreation
- Juan Mata
- Manchester United
- Louis van Gaal
- David Moyes