Recently, Manchester United have been on a poor run of form. A heavy defeat against Chelsea on Sunday felt as though someone had cranked up the heat on Jose Mourinho. The cup tie last night at Old Trafford against local rivals Manchester City felt like one of the most significant for years, for United at least.
United came through the game and booked their place in the quarter-final against West Ham, with a 1-0 win thanks to Juan Mata, a player who most people thought would be first out of the door when Mourinho was appointed as manager. However, Mata is becoming a crucial player for Manchester United and it is showing. In the Premier League, United have won 13 out of a possible 15 when Mata has started the game. When Mata doesn’t start, United have won just 1 point out of a possible 12. Mata’s performances are certainly giving Mourinho a selection headache because, for me, he’s still trying to figure out his best team, best formation and how to get the best out of Paul Pogba. In addition, it looks as though Wayne Rooney’s future is in doubt at the club, so if Mourinho persists with the 4-2-3-1 formation with a ‘no 10’, then starting Mata there could be the way to go.
The Spaniard was bought by the club in January 2014 under David Moyes after falling out of favour at Chelsea under Mourinho. As a United fan, I was thrilled by this signing at the time because I really admired Mata. I thought he was a quality player and a player United were crying out for after Moyes reportedly decided to pass up the chance to sign Mesut Ozil. However, Moyes decided to play Mata out wide, and although he played there during his time at Valencia, his best position is, without doubt, the ‘no 10’ role and to me Mata became a shadow of the player we know he can be when he played out wide under Moyes.
Under the reign of Louis van Gaal, Mata played as a ‘no 10’ and out wide as an inside forward almost and enjoyed some success there, most notably scoring a brace at Anfield and other important goals such as the equaliser in the FA Cup final against Crystal Palace. Although during Van Gaal’s early days at United it seemed as though the Dutchman preferred an attacking trio of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, and Radamel Falcao. Towards the end of Van Gaal’s tenure at the club, it seems as though he recognised the importance of Mata and his impact on the team.
Another player who has been instrumental to United playing well this season is Mata’s Spanish compatriot Ander Herrera was bought by Louis van Gaal during his first season in charge at the club. Many questioned whether Herrera was good enough to play in a rigid tactical system such as Van Gaal’s but Herrera still managed to score and set up goals against teams such as Liverpool. He was used sparingly by Van Gaal and it seemed as though the Dutchman didn’t rate Herrera.
This season, however, under Jose Mourinho has been a different story. Although he started off slowly and was limited to substitute appearances, the past couple of weeks has been terrific for Herrera. He put in a fantastic performance against Leicester when United won 4-1, and a two weeks ago put in a man-of-the-match performance against Liverpool. Last night against Manchester City he was a terror in midfield, constantly sniffing out the ball.
The Spanish duo has emerged as two important figures of Mourinho’s squad, and in my opinion, they both should be starting at the moment. I feel as though United look a better collective ‘team’ with both players playing instead of a ‘team’ of individuals. In addition, I feel as though these two players ‘get’ what it means to play for United. They understand the romanticism around the club, the never say die attitude and the ability to always bounce back whether that’s from a terrible result or a terrible tragedy like the Munich disaster. That’s why a lot of fans admire players like this who show humility because it’s so rare in today’s game. These two have been under-appreciated in the past, and to an extent, I think particularly Mata has been underrated. However, it is nice to see them both emerge as Mourinho’s most important men. They have been certainly United’s ‘Dúo Dinámico’ this season, and may well it continue.