False Winger or a True Number Ten? What suits Juan Mata better?

Juan Mata

Moreno with the ball in Manchester United’s half. Tries to dribble past Mata who expertly nicks the ball of the Liverpool full back’s feet, causing him to fall in a heap. United counter.

Sterling tries to latch on to through ball from Moreno, who slips the ball past an onrushing Valencia. Mata is the quickest to react as he blocks Sterling’s path and the ball runs out of play harmlessly.

If somebody had read out these excerpts from the Liverpool – Manchester United game to Jose Mourinho, the Chelsea manager would have quashed the claims straightaway. ‘ Impossible Impossible’, he would have muttered in his thick Portuguese accent. Such has been Juan Mata’s reputation of being a lazy worker in the field, he was ousted from Mourinho’s first eleven in his first season back in charge of the blues.

Donning his role as a number ten in attack nobody really cared that the Spanish playmaker seldom bothered to track back.

But Mourinho did and Mata had to warm the benches till the January transfer window opened when David Moyes lured him into joining a lacklustre United whose performances were crying out for a playmaker. Mata came, Mata saw and Mata conquered the hearts of a million United fans. His signing remains the only silver lining of an otherwise disastrous Moyes regime at United.

Mata’s season under Louis Van Gaal did not start brightly though. Playing in the hole behind the two strikers, Mata had to do a little more (much more in fact) defensively. Mata was passive in the first few games where United failed to breakdown the opposition and got on to a torrid start. His game improved as United switched to a 4-4-2 diamond from the 3-5-2 formation that looked rather predictable.

Mata usually revels in that number ten role pinging passes into the centre forwards or spreading it wide to the wingers. He was top-notch against Liverpool at Old Trafford where he scored and assisted playing behind the strikers James Wilson and Robin Van Persie. Mata was in and out of the team midway where Van Gaal experimented with him and Wayne Rooney, behind the two strikers. Mata’s biggest critique was the lack of impact he had against top teams. He was passive against Chelsea and did not feature against Manchester City or Arsenal during a lean patch towards the end of the year. Van Gaal seemed to be aware of his defensive shortcomings as he did not trust the former Chelsea player of the year, in a role that demands more work rate and discipline.

The best part of Mata’s game was his combination with Ander Herrera who had started to become more influential in the games. The pair shared a telepathic understanding with each other (and a few bear hugs), which impacted United’s game in a positive way. Even though the Manchester United forwards had a very modest return of goals, United were able to maintain a decent goal difference, thanks to the likes of Mata, Herrera and Marouane Fellaini.

A change in formation to the gaffer’s preferred 4-3-3 saw Mata pushed to a wider role. Questions were raised when Mata was ahead of the likes of Angel Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj in the pecking order to start in the right-winger role. His critics were quick to point out how it would expose the United right back as Mata’s work rate leaves a lot to be desired for. But Mata silenced his critics as his impressive run of form in that role was the impetus to many of the United victories in the tail end of the season that ensured United will feature in the Champions League next season.

Mata did track back, did not hesitate to put in challenges, and with Herrera playing as the right-sided midfielder for company, provided solid protection for the United full back Antonio Valencia who also had a better finish to his season. Two beautifully taken goals against the hated rivals Liverpool in front of their home crowd, made Mata’s name more popular amongst the United folklore and the Spanish midfield maestro rewarded himself a few more bear hugs after scoring against Manchester city in a rainy day in Manchester.

What Lies Ahead

Manchester rather unsurprisingly are linked to a plethora of players in the transfer market and a large chunk of that are midfielders. Mata’s place could come under threat if United were to sign another attacking midfielder. With reports surfacing that United are pursuing the likes of Robert Firmino, who is a number ten by trade, Mata would be wondering how much of a chance he has to be a guaranteed starter in Van Gaal’s new look Manchester United. The manager has made it clear that he wants to buy players who will suit his preferred formation (which is 4-3-3) and in all likeliness he will, given the money at his disposal. But Mata has done his reputation no harm under Van Gaal as he has adapted well to his philosophy.

Mata’s experience in the Champions League could be another big plus for the manager. Against teams who defend stoutly, Mata’s creativity could come in very handy. Operating as an advanced midfielder or behind the striker in the hole, Mata’s vision could be key to unlocking defences. Mata loves pace ahead of him and with United already adding Memphis Depay to the side and hopefully Di Maria settling in his second season after he confirmed that he will stay at Manchester United, Mata could relish the chance to orchestrate the United attack which boast talent in abundance.

Undoubtedly though there would be critics writing his chances off and being vocal about how he is going to be shown the door very soon. But many of them had deemed Mata good enough only for the bench when United signed the likes of Di Maria and Radamel Falcao last summer. Mata responded strongly mustering 33 appearances and racking up nine goals and four assists. He will be raring to go again and prove his doubters wrong once more. The United faithful would be hoping to see more from Mata. More goals, more assists and a lot more bear hugs.

This article was researched and written by Ashish Krishna. You can follow him on Twitter.

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