When Juan Mata joined Manchester United in January, expectations were very high on the Spaniard, and rightly so. After all, one of the best players in the league over the previous two-and-a-half seasons was signed for a then club record-fee. However, Mata took time to settle. Despite assisting goals in both of his first two games, at home to Cardiff and away to Stoke, Mata looked peripheral. He was hopelessly stuck out on the right side of a rigid 4-4-2 deployed by David Moyes, without any chance to make a similar impact to the one he’d had at the Stamford Bridge for a couple of years for Chelsea. When injuries to Robin van Persie meant the Dutchman missed a few games, Mata was given his sought-after central role behind Wayne Rooney. Instantly, he showed his talent. He shone in a comfortable away win to West Ham and linked up well with both Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa (a player on the same wavelength as Mata). The following game was the Manchester Derby where Mata was back on the right wing as City cruised to a 3-0 win at Old Trafford.
But the next game was the start of an impressing end of the season run-in for the Spaniard. Mata played behind Rooney (and with Kagawa) again in the 4-1 win over Aston Villa which saw Mata score his first Manchester United goal. Next up, Newcastle away. Mata scored twice as United impressed with a lovely, fluid attacking game with Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj linking up behind Chicharito Hernandez. Apart from Mata’s two exquisite goals, he also produced a stunning back-heel to tee up Januzaj for the fourth.
In Ryan Giggs first match as caretaker manager, Mata started on the bench but came on to score twice against Norwich. And in the last game of the season the former Valencia player curled in a beautiful free-kick against Southampton. After an impressive end to his first half-season as a United player, expectations were high again going in to this campaign.
In pre-season, Louis van Gaal’s preference for a 3-5-2 style formation became apparent and it seemed to suit Mata as he would operate in the number 10 position behind two strikers. However, he rarely got enough of the ball and when he did, didn’t make as much impact as either of United’s attacking players managed. United became slow and predictable and that included Mata, despite him scoring away to Sunderland.
With the additions of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, competition for places higher up the field increased and from the start it seemed Mata would be the one to miss out as Van Gaal opted for a 4-4-2 diamond with Falcao and van Persie up front with Rooney in Mata’s preferred number 10 role. However, injuries and Van Gaal not being pleased with performances meant Mata got back in to the team and has rarely left it since October. In this time, Van Gaal has tinkered with his classic 4-3-3, the 3-5-2 and the 4-4-2 diamond but still seem like he’s searching for the right formula. What this tinkering has shown though, is a surprising versatility to Mata’s game. Below I will try and show this with the help of pictures from arguably Mata’s two best performances of the season, the home wins against Hull City and Liverpool.
This is how United lined up against Hull after Angel Di Maria’s early injury. A diamond in midfield, although this particular picture doesn’t really highlight that as Herrera is pressing but you can all see Mata’s position. To the left in the withdrawn midfield three circled in yellow and not in the number 10 role, which you would have expected when Herrera came on.
What has been the problem since Mata came to the club is the lack of runs ahead of him. Together with Carrick, Mata possesses the best vision in the squad and is the best passer, but the lack of runs around him and ahead of him has only limited his possibility to really make an impact as he creates chances through his immaculate passing ability and not by dribbling through teams as Di Maria can. What this position gives him is the ability to be involved in both the build up play but also the possibility to create chances high up the pitch as he often finds himself in the position highlighted above. With his face to goal and people running ahead of him, he can use his vision and quality on the ball to pick out players as well as helping the team keep possession of the ball.
Again, and this happened time and time again against Hull, Mata on the ball with his face towards goal with people running ahead of him. It’s no surprise that Mata created five chances in this game, as well as completing 72 passes at an excellent pass completion of 90%.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and this is the game against Liverpool when van Gaal decided to go with the 3-5-2 shape he has favoured away from home against the likes of Arsenal and Southampton. Mata was deployed in the number 10 role with van Persie and Wilson ahead of him. Even though United in the end had more possession than the visitors, United were set-up to counter-attack through Mata’s passing and James Wilson’s pace. Mata’s performance underlined his quality in the last third with a goal and an assist.
United’s third goal was the epitome of how Mata is perfect for counter-attacking play too and not only possession football. United won the ball near their own 18-yard-box and Mata found space to run into when he received the ball and played a brilliant through ball to Wayne Rooney, whose pass to van Persie was cleared by Lovren straight into the path of Mata.
Here Mata has controlled the ball outside the area and everybody expects him to shoot, but he shows incredibly composure and vision to set up van Persie for the 3-0 goal.
If you need a picture to sum up the genius of Juan Mata, this is the one. The little Spaniard fools Gerrard, Skrtel and Lovren with a no-look pass to van Persie. Absolutely brilliant!
After a slow start to life at United, Juan Mata has slowly grown into it and he has the stats to prove it. 11 goals and 6 assists in 28 Premier League appearances are good, although you would like to see more assists. I’m sure that will come though now the team is set up better with people running ahead of him so he can pick them out with his razor sharp through balls.
If deployed in centre midfield or in the number 10 role doesn’t matter as he has shown that he can play well in both but, depending on the opposition, I believe that against the so-called lesser sides it wouldn’t be a bad idea to play him in the midfield three to make sure he gets on the ball to both start and finish attacks. Juan Mata is a very clever player, and his new found versatility is key for him to make sure he stays in Louis van Gaal’s very flexible Manchester United team.
This piece was written by David Selini. Follow him on twitter @DaveSelini