Transfer Window Analysis: Is Juan Mata the right player to solve Manchester United’s problems?

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Something which features regularly during the January transfer window is the growing sense that top clubs struggle to conduct good business. David Moyes, like Sir Alex Ferguson before him, has stated in recent weeks that clubs are reluctant to part company with quality players in the middle of a campaign. He has repeated that Manchester United are looking at top players, many of which are not available in January. It is is an understandable position for clubs to adopt. However, with the World Cup in Brazil a mere five months away, the need to play regular football in order to cement a place in the national side becomes more prominent in the consciousness of footballers who represent their countries on a regular basis.

One such player is Juan Mata.

A baffling mystery of the Premier League’s story this season has been Jose Mourinho’s lack of faith in the Chelsea playmaker. After two stellar seasons with the Blues, Juan Mata has emerged as their most consistent performer whilst capturing the imagination of the Stamford Bridge crowd. His statistics for last season speak for themselves- 12 goals and 12 assists in the league to complement an 85% pass completion rate. In spite of this, Mourinho has opted to reduce Juan Mata’s status at the club to that of a regular benchwarmer. The Portuguese head coach has instead favoured Eden Hazard, Oscar and summer arrival Willian as the attacking trio playing behind a lone striker, relegating Juan Mata to an onlooker. Mata’s frustration at this change has become increasingly visible, none more so than when he was substituted in the 53rd minute during Chelsea’s 3-0 win away to Southampton.

That was New Years Day and the 25-year old has yet to reappear. Mourinho has adamantly reiterated his desire to keep the Spaniard at the club but Mata’s World Cup ambitions have begun to eclipse his love for Chelsea. Not to say that he isn’t committed, as his attitude on the pitch has always been admirable, rather he has become acutely aware of the stiff competition he faces in terms of starting for Spain in Brazil. Spain boast one of the most talented squads in world football and spending the second half of the season on the bench will only hinder his chances of being a prominent figure in their bid to successfully defend the World Cup.

According to various reports, Chelsea are willing to sell Mata at the right price and Manchester United appear to be the team most likely to benefit. The Telegraph reports that: “United have been given encouragement that a bid for Mata will be accepted by Chelsea, despite Jose Mourinho’s preference for the player to remain at Stamford Bridge, and the two clubs are close to settling on a valuation of the former Valencia player.”

Negotiations are balanced on whether or not Mata personally informs Mourinho of his desire to leave the club. If he does so, then the deal could be a formality if United are willing to meet Chelsea’s £37 million valuation.

There is no question regarding Manchester United’s need for quality recruitment, with the champions lumbering 14-points off league leaders Arsenal, and Mata may be the type of player to galvanize the squad in the coming months. David Moyes will know that they cannot retain the title, so recruiting Mata will be seen as key in order to secure Champions League qualification for next season.

The Guardian reports that the two clubs have agreed a provisional fee of £40 million and that a formal offer from United is imminent. Reflecting reports from other sources, however, the newspaper suggests that Mourinho still has the power to block any move to United as the final decision lays with him (a power not enjoyed by previous managers under Abramovich). The Guardian believes though that Mata’s personal desire will be the vital component and that Mourinho’s decision is likely to be shaped by Mata’s attitude. If Mata makes clear his intention to leave, the club are expected to sell.

A big point of debate surrounding the potential transfer has been; If Manchester United were to buy Mata, where would he play and how would he fit into the squad?

Gary Neville, speaking on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football, argued that the player does not fit United’s philosophy and that they would benefit more from other targets.

“The first question, I think, is where are you going to play? Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie are up top if they are fit so where are you going to play him? Are you going to play him off the left or off the right? We’ve seen Kagawa play off the left, we saw Kleberson play at times off the left, we’ve seen Veron at Manchester United move to the left because you can’t play central midfield. Maybe they have to change the philosophy and maybe that’s what David Moyes is thinking. Maybe he wants to play narrow wide players and maybe a three in midfield” Neville argued.

“They would have to change to accommodate Juan Mata in the way they normally play. They normally play with wide players. Sometimes they tuck in, but generally they have wide players and the thing for me is where is he going to play?”

Gary Neville questions if Juan Mata is the right player for United. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5jvAGrcywY

Mata is a top quality footballer who possesses the potential to be tactically flexible and as such, could operate in different positions across different formations. Manchester United traditionally play with wingers, a position Mata can capably occupy. He has a gifted left foot and is wonderfully creative and United may benefit highly from his passing accuracy and creative craft. The solution is no simple matter though as the Premier League champions already have Januzaj, Valencia, Nani and Young who can all operate as wingers.

Here are the possible formations United may choose to employ in the event of Mata coming to the club:

(4-2-3-1)

De Gea

Rafael        Vidic      Evans      Evra

Carrick  Fletcher

Januzaj  Rooney  Mata

Van Persie

The 4-2-3-1 formation has become increasingly popular throughout European football but it may not suit Manchester United’s style of play. It would betray the club’s tradition of playing wingers and two forwards in a traditional 4-4-2. Rooney, Mata and Januzaj form an enticing attacking trio behind Van Persie but it would force Moyes to omit Danny Welbeck from the line-up, a player who has progressed well this season and added more goals to his game. Nani and Young have been surplus to requirements for some time and their days are numbered at Old Trafford. In addition, Antonio Valencia has become a Nani-esque player in that he is frustratingly inconsistent and his pace has been blunted since he first came to the club, an attribute which used to strike fear into left-backs all over the league.

(4-3-3)

De Gea

Rafael      Vidic     Evans     Evra

     Rooney     Carrick     Cleverley/Fletcher

Januzaj       Van Persie       Mata

David Moyes may seek to tweak his formation to a 4-3-3 if Mata where to arrive, which would see the Spaniard deployed on the wing of attack in support of Van Persie, with Januzaj on the other side. This seems like a more viable option for United as it maintains wingers as a weapon of attack as well as giving Carrick support in midfield. However, despite showing glimpses of midfield mastery, Rooney’s best position is up to where he can do what he was born to do- score goals. Thrusting Rooney back into midfield may decrease the player’s effectiveness. Both formations have excluded Hernandez and Kagawa. Kagawa has not lived up to his Dortmund days whilst being at United and he looks feeble when up against commanding defenders. His creativity is evident but he doesn’t deliver on a consistent basis which is essential at the top level. Both Januzaj and Mata have better control of the ball and can ride challenges more efficiently, leaving Kagawa’s place at United under intense scrutiny.

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(4-4-2)

De Gea

Rafael     Vidic    Evans     Evra

 Januzaj    Carrick  Fletcher     Mata

Rooney   Van Persie

This formation is perhaps the most conventional option and perhaps the safest route for Moyes to pursue. It’s a standard two banks of four and two up top. Januzaj and Mata would provide excellent service for Rooney and Van Persie and the two wingers are capable of swapping wings. However, these formations also highlight a glaring problem at United- the urgent need for a central midfielder. Mata is not a central midfielder and United continue to look rife with inferiority in the middle. The £27.5 million addition of Fellaini in the summer has not quite worked and it is arguable whether or not he deserves a place in the team beside Michael Carrick. Cleverley has not developed enough as a player to stake his claim for a regular starting berth and with Darren Fletcher plagued by an illness that realistically will never fully subside, United are still short for options. Also, Anderson has left on loan to Fiorentina to make matters worse for Moyes’ men.

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It’s clear that Moyes and his management staff, along with executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, lack a coherent transfer strategy. The positions which are in urgent need of bolstering are seemingly being neglected by Moyes who is aggressively pursuing world-class players. Central midfield and left-back are the two positions Moyes should be delving into the transfer market to strengthen but he appears to be on the verge of signing an attacking midfielder. Mata would perhaps be the last piece in the puzzle if Moyes possessed a formidable midfield and revamped defence but he doesn’t and it looks like those positions will not be given immediate attention, ensuring that problems will only get deeper. Moyes’ pursuit of Mata is indeed a strange one and is perhaps banking on the hope that it will have the ‘Ozil effect’ in lifting the morale of the squad.

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About Matt Gault

Matt is a long-term These Football Times writer and co-author of A Tale of One City, Football's Fleeting Fraternity, The Academy Way and Masterminds. He supports Manchester United but also follows the fortunes of FK Qarabag in Azerbaijan. Based in Belfast, he is interested in the relationship between politics and football and rebellious footballers. Has been featured on The Guardian, FourFourTwo, WorldSoccer.com, BBC, Daily Mail and Huffington Post. He is also the Editor of SquareEyed.tv (http://www.squareeyed.tv/), covering the world of movies, TV and culture. Follow SquareEyed on Twitter @SquareEyed_tv and like us on Facebook! Follow Matt on Twitter @MattGault11
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One Response to Transfer Window Analysis: Is Juan Mata the right player to solve Manchester United’s problems?

  1. Pingback: Transfer Window Analysis: Is Juan Mata the right player to solve Manchester United’s problems? | Four-Four-You

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