The signing of Juan Mata by David Moyes this January was supposed to be the catalyst to the revival of Manchester United’s season. Thoroughly disappointing since August, the Theatre of Dreams needed someone or something to add a spark of life into a campaign that was threatening to be over before it had begun. What I saw however, was another Mesut Ozil.
The tricky German signed on transfer deadline day in the summer for a huge fee of £42.5 million, but once the honeymoon period had subsided, his performances dropped to the somewhat mediocre. Now I am not saying that Ozil or Mata were panic buys; their qualities are not really up for debate, but I do believe both were not really what either team required.
The large outlay of cash was certainly a signal of intent in both cases, but also in both instances it was money that could have been better spent elsewhere. Arsenal needed a top-draw front-man and Man Utd have been lacking a midfield enforcer ever since the departure of Roy Keane. Going all out for a Vidal or even a returning Pogba would have been preferable in my view.
Having struggled to find the best way to fit all of his ‘floating’ players into the first eleven, Moyes’ decision was placed under a great deal of scrutiny. A fan-favourite in Shinji Kagawa wasn’t getting a sniff, and Mata was becoming frustrated when forced to play wide right; isolated from the game. His performances can be likened to a solar eclipse; marvelous when they do occur, but such precise conditions are required that they are incredibly rare.
In what may well prove to be a blessing in disguise, Robin Van Persie suffered a potentially season-ending injury against Olympiakos which finally gave Moyes the freedom to select Mata in his most effective role.
With Rooney playing as an out and out number 9, Mata could now be played in behind and finding the space between the lines in which he thrives. Not only have the assists started to flow, but so have the goals. A goal against Aston Villa was followed by a brace against Newcastle and the match-winning performances that we were so used to seeing at Chelsea have begun to return.
Now this raises a serious question; how can Moyes continue to optimise the effectiveness of Juan Mata in this role. In my mind, the answer is simple and only requires inspiration from the legendary Scot that is Sir Alex Ferguson. When any player of his; no matter how influential, became detrimental to team spirit, he was transferred from the club without hesitation. It seems as though Van Persie has taken up this mantle.
Playing without visible effort and complaining at every possible situation, he does not seem to be contributing significantly to the team. He even resorted to criticising his own team-mates for “running into his space” in the 2-0 defeat to Olympiakos in the Champions League. The situation can be likened to one from the past when Van Nistelrooy; another prolific Dutch forward, was hindering the overall progress of the team. Sir Alex was able to see this faster than anyone else and then act on it.
If David Moyes was to take a leaf out of his mentor’s book, then perhaps team spirit at Old Trafford would receive a lift, a significant drain of resources would be removed in the form of wages and; maybe most important of all, their £37.5 million man would have an effect on the team that his price tag demands.
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