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English Premier League

Juan Mata Holds The Key To United’s Improving Performances



There’s something quite unsettling about the transfer of an expensive, high profile player from one of the Premier League’s top clubs to another – probably because it happens so infrequently. Examples in recent history have undoubtedly heightened that sense of unease, with Fernando Torres’s infamous period as Chelsea’s number nine the most noteworthy disappointment in the last decade. Ordinarily, of course, elite clubs are willing and able to raid the foreign leagues for their most prodigious talents and naturally see it counterintuitive to pay handsome sums to their domestic rivals, even if it means relieving them of their finest players. Indeed, this is probably at the heart of the contemporary issue regarding the lack of chances afforded to English players at club level, with the millions available more readily spent on Argentine or Spanish youngsters than British ones.

Angel Di Maria has this season become the most costly indication of how far from guaranteed success a big money signing can be. With just three goals in 21 appearances for Manchester United, the winner of last season’s Champions League arrived at Old Trafford with expectations that he simply hasn’t come close to fulfilling. His transfer fee of £59.7 million is a British record and some way above Juan Mata’s £37.1 million move from Chelsea to United in January 2014, which was, at the time, the Red Devils’ record signing. In spite of the aforementioned apprehension that comes with a headline transfer deal between two of English football’s titans, the Spaniard is beginning to show just as much brilliance for United as he did at Stamford Bridge and has effectively replaced Di Maria in Louis Van Gaal’s meticulous midfield formation.

It seems the Dutch coach – and the Old Trafford faithful – had finally lost patience with the successive lacklustre attacking displays after Man United’s 1-2 defeat at home to Arsenal in the FA Cup quarterfinal at the beginning of March. In the subsequent games that month, Van Gaal opted for Mata over Di Maria, with Michael Carrick holding and Wayne Rooney reinstated up front. Following months of experimentation and an apparent lack of clarity over his strongest team, Van Gaal might just have found his perfect setup, with Mata holding the key to much-improved offensive performances.

Against Newcastle United in mid-March, the Red Devils powered their way to a 3-0 victory, looking as convincing as they have all season. Rooney took most of the media attention due to a punchy celebration of his and United’s third goal and also because the simple truth is that pundits and fans across the country were pleased to see England’s captain being played where he is most effective. It was the most recent game, against Liverpool at Anfield, where the real importance of Van Gaal’s changes was plain to see. Making the decision to play four at the back simplified things considerably for United’s midfielders, who were tasked with keeping the ball from the impressive trio of Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling. They did this wonderfully; passing with a tempo that rivalled any performance from any side in the top flight this season.

Individually, United’s midfield players were excellent. Carrick kept the ball and distributed with the composure for which he is now being touted as a vital starter for England. The masterstroke from Van Gaal, though, came in his acknowledgement of the link between Ander Herrera and Mata. The Spaniards appeared to be liberated from the previously rigid style with which the United manager has become associated and their mutual understanding unlocked the Liverpool defence consistently, ultimately leading to the first goal. Marouane Fellaini’s contribution was also imperative in both the Newcastle and Liverpool wins. Played in the position that earned him his move from Everton (as a physical brute-like number 10), the Belgian kept the ball moving in United’s favour from wing to wing.

It was a display worthy of United’s prestige and ought to have impressed their expectant supporters no end. But why was Mata particularly central to everything that has been altered in the last two games? Aside from the two quite magnificent goals he scored at Anfield, his main contribution was the nature in which he plays and how he implicated his teammates in that style. Though classed as a winger, Mata is quite unlike the traditional chalk-on-the-boots, cross-loving, pace-driven players that normally occupy those zones. Mata thrives because of his intelligence and speed of decision-making. Not one to draw players and then dart away or win a free-kick, Mata is more interested in moving the ball quickly, finding space, receiving it and then releasing again. Mata is not confined to the position he has been assigned and it is his tendency to drift and capacity to locate open areas that makes him so dangerous in the Premier League. Simple perhaps, but it’s something a European Cup winner like Di Maria has thus far failed to do.

Gary Neville wrote in The Telegraph just a couple of weeks ago that it is no longer acceptable for England to hold onto its belief that it is the toughest league. Physicality is not something that many of the players arriving on these shores involve in their games, nor do they appreciate being subjected to it. Mata learnt this quickly at Chelsea, accepting quickly that his strength lies in his sharpness of movement and of mind. Di Maria, thus far, has seemed intent on looking to win free-kicks over moving the ball quickly and determined to outpace players rather than find a teammate and dart into space. The Argentine is no Eden Hazard (not many are even close), who makes all of those things quite simple. Di Maria would do well to observe Mata’s skill and trickery, because it has injected a lethal edge to United that has been missing for much of this campaign so far.

The international break has not represented an opportunity for Mata to continue his impressive form, which is striking for a number of reasons. First, his absence from his country’s starting team is demonstrative of Spain’s strength in depth in his position. Second, it highlights just how numerous Spain’s players of his type are, with England in possession of very few of his ilk. The reality, when confronted with the question about why there is such a dearth of English players being given opportunities to prove themselves, is that they have not been equipped with the tools to think, act and achieve with speed and precision. They’d rather hold onto their big, shiny and tremendously overrated physicality.

One thing is for sure: Juan Mata is on course to be one of the most successful high profile signings from one huge Premier League outfit to another and his helping United to consolidate Champions League football for next season is just further proof of his class. Fans of the club will be pleased that his value has been recognised by Van Gaal and that he was not allowed to wither on the bench in much the same manner that Shinji Kagawa did before him.

Trilingual football romanticist (Villa fan), British-born Parisian (PSG follower), shrugging enthusiast and writer. Published on B/R and


Three Liverpool men who need to capitalise on rotation



Photo: Getty Images.

With the Champions League semi-finals occupying all of Liverpool‘s mind and attention, it has represented a fresh chance for some players on the fringes of the squad.

For three men in particular, the next few seemingly meaningless Premier League fixtures could represent a chance to rescue their Anfield careers.

Danny Ings

The ex-Burnley striker had rotten luck in picking up a serious knee injury in training days after Jurgen Klopp’s appointment and has only just started his first two Premier League games under the German coach up against Everton and West Brom.

His poachers’ finish at The Hawthorns was an emotional moment for the striker and whilst it seems inevitable that his future lies on loan next season at least, good form from the Englishmen could see him make a case to be a back-up option in 2018/19.

With Dominic Solanke not pulling up trees when given the chance earlier on in the campaign, Danny Ings may feel that there is a place up for grabs.

(Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)

Ragnar Klavan

The Estonian central defender was never signed as a long-term solution at the back and whilst usually reliable, he has let the team down at times.

The arrival of Virgil Van Dijk has pushed him further down the pecking order and it still looks likely that another defender may arrive in the summer to join the Dutchman in favour of Dejan Lovren or Joel Matip.

Klavan has seen the latter half of this season disrupted by injury but by leading the way in an inexperienced backline in the upcoming league fixtures could be pivotal to defining his Anfield future.

Alberto Moreno

The Spaniard has always been a controversial figure on Merseyside, but at the start of this season he appeared to be on the right track and became a regular in Jurgen Klopp’s selections.

An injury picked up in the Champions League forced him onto the sidelines and led to the emergence of Andrew Robertson, who rapidly became a fan favourite and one of the first names on the team-sheet.

The left-back had shown his defensive improvements earlier on in the season and will need to maintain that if he is to convince Klopp that he is worth keeping around for 2018/19.

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English Premier League

Tottenham fans reminded why they sold Federico Fazio for just £3.8m

The Argentine was poor against Liverpool, reminding Tottenham Hotspur fans why he was sold.



Last night Liverpool put one foot in the Champions League final. They raced into a 5-0 lead against AS Roma at Anfield. Inspire by the best attacker in the world right now, Mohamed Salah, Liverpool put the Italians to the sword. Whilst the Giallorossi did manage to grab two goals to make the second leg a contest, Liverpool will feel confident of progress.

For Tottenham fans, the game represented a reminder of why they sold a player they were regretting a couple of weeks ago. When Roma turned around a 4-1 deficit against Barcelona, the performance of Federico Fazio caused a stir. He was a man-mountain in the Stadio Olimpico, as Roma won 3-0.

It left some Tottenham fans wondering why they sold him for a fee in the region of £3.8 million in 2017 – as reported by talkSPORT – after just 32 appearances for the North London club.

Last night showed exactly why.

(Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)

Fazio, along with the other members of the Roma back three, was poor against Liverpool. He was not helped by the decision to play a high-line. However, his physical attributes were exposed by Liverpool. Slow, sluggish and clumsy, this looked like the Fazio that Tottenham fans remember from his time at White Hart Lane after joining from Sevilla in the summer of 2014.

But a high-line is not his game, he is a combative defender who is excellent in the air. Well, that did not look the case when he wimpishly challenged Roberto Firmino for a header that the Brazilian dispatched.

Tottenham fans were impressed with his performance against Barcelona in the last round and, with Toby Alderweireld set to leave, having Fazio around again might have appealed to some Spurs fans. Based on this performance v their Premier League rivals, they will be happy he is in the Italian capital.

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Statistics show Jordan Henderson’s display against Roma was his best for Liverpool



Photo: Getty Images.

In the build-up to the Champions League semi-final, there was one joke which was repeatedly told, “imagine the sight of Jordan Henderson lifting the Champions League trophy”. On Tuesday night, the Liverpool captain showed just why it’s a distinct possibility.

The midfielder completely dominated the experienced Italian trio of Daniele De Rossi, Kevin Strootman and Radja Nainggolan, teaming up perfectly with James Milner and Georgino Wijnaldum, who replaced the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, to put their stomp on the game and dictate the tempo.

Sitting deep and playing balls over the top, Henderson showed what he can do as a playmaker with his impressive range of passing on show once again, completing as many passes in the final third as Sadio Mane.

Of his 54 passes, only 16 were backwards, compared to 22 forwards, and Henderson was consistently looking to move the ball forward and find a breakthrough against Roma’s high defensive line.

(Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Defensively, Henderson was even more impressive. No player completed more ball recoveries than Henderson’s 12, so much so that the next best tally on his team was seven, almost half of what the captain contributed.

The location of his recoveries too showed his influence, playing in the holding midfield role and breaking up play before looking to rapidly start counter-attacks.

Restricting himself to an entirely central role, Henderson got the better of the likes of De Rossi and Strootman and put them on edge right from the off, causing them to be sloppy in possession and panic, which only got worse as the goals started flowing for the Reds.

In addition, he was successful in more tackles than any other Liverpool player as he made the midfield his own in arguably the highest profile fixture he has ever played in.

Many have questioned the credentials of the former Sunderland man, who is also in contention for the England captaincy, but performances like on Tuesday should soon convince any doubters that he is a key piece of Jurgen Klopp’s puzzle. Post-match, a number of fans and pundits aired their praise for his display.

The tie may only be at half-time but Jordan Henderson must show such leadership on the field of play again in Rome after his team lost their focus in the closing stages of their first leg clash.

Leading by example is pivotal to Henderson’s style and displays like his performance on Tuesday night at Anfield go a long way to justifying his role as captain of Liverpool.

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