Amongst David Moyes’ more unforgivable offences this season has been his inability to get the most out of his sleekest and most accomplished new possession. Juan Mata, Manchester United’s record signing who initially appeared to have breathed a new lease of life into the club’s troubled season upon signing back in January, is not working out as planned.
Instead, United fans have grown depressingly accustomed to an unwanted image of Mata in the iconic red shirt: isolated, bewildered, attempting desperately valiantly to not look entirely disillusioned by the quality of his new teammates. The question rarely seems far from his lips: “what have I got myself in for here?”
It’s a sorry plight, and one that was placed into particularly sharp focus by the performance of David Silva, Manchester City’s own diminutive Spanish playmaker, during Wednesday’s horrific derby defeat. Silva caused endless problems for United’s back line, pulling it out of shape with his smart darting runs and delicate short passes. In recent weeks, Silva himself has even stated his bewilderment at United’s inability to maximise Mata’s potential. It’s difficult not to ponder the question: have Manchester United broken Juan Mata?
The stats make depressing reading for United followers. His failure to keep a relatively straightforward shot below the bar in Wednesday’s game with City was typical of the Spaniard’s form in front of goal this season. Despite notching 20 goals for Chelsea during 2012/13, he currently boasts a goal total of zero for United and a shot accuracy of just 38%. On Wednesday he was dispossessed twice and made just one key pass during the game, although he has picked up three assists for United since signing.
What, then, is to blame for Mata’s worrying start? There have been a few moments of sublime magic from the forward, including some spectacular instances of close control, but the player himself will be the first to admit that he has failed to deliver the form he consistently proved himself capable of during his two seasons at Chelsea prior to Jose Mourinho’s arrival. He’ll be determined to improve his own end product to help his new side and increase his chances of making it to the World Cup with Spain.
But an explanation of Mata’s struggles goes far deeper than his own application or personal form. It’s a frequently suggested theory, but Mata has consistently been played out of position at Old Trafford, starting only two of his nine appearances for the club in his preferred No.10 role.
Mata and Manchester United fans could have been forgiven for feeling a rare glimmer of hope after last Saturday’s league fixture against West Ham. With Robin van Persie out injured, Moyes started with Wayne Rooney as his main striker, with Mata finally slotting in behind him and Shinji Kagawa deployed alongside in a narrow left-sided position. Mata consequently flourished and contributed to his team’s potent attacking offering. United have always seemed to get the best out of Rooney when he plays a more disciplined and defined role, whilst Kagawa and Mata were able to combine effectively – sometimes deliciously – to create chances, finally creating the angles and nudging the delicate touches that had whetted the appetite of the United fanbase to such a degree when the Spaniard arrived in January.
It may well have been a false dawn, though. Wednesday’s game against Manchester City represented a depressing return to the dark days of January and February, ultimately becoming a clear microcosm of the difficulties that Mata has faced since his arrival at Old Trafford. Moyes again lined up with Rooney up front, but dropped Kagawa in favour of Tom Cleverley, another deep-lying, defensive central midfielder. The result was highly damaging to Mata’s effectiveness. Having to come far too deep to pick up the ball, he was repeatedly placed in scenarios where Rooney and Danny Welbeck were far too far away to initiate effective linkup.
Yet tactics and formations only scratch the surface of Mata and United’s troubles this season. More worrying has been the fear and trepidation that his new teammates have played with throughout the year. It’s no stretch to argue that the only players who have appeared consistently comfortable with receiving the ball at Old Trafford this season can be counted on one hand this season. Two are Kagawa and Rooney. The others are defensive players: Rafael, Jonny Evans and, depressingly, the goalkeeper David de Gea. Mata cannot do it all on his own – and his mission is made almost impossible when the likes of the unadventurous Cleverley and entirely confidence-shot Michael Carrick are persistently opting to go backwards and sideways with their passes whenever they receive the ball
Moyes said all the right things upon Mata’s arrival, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the niggling feeling that his new manager didn’t ever really have a master plan for his inclusion in the team. Mata, it appears, was a glorified panic buy, a player out of favour at his old club and available for purchase who Moyes snapped at the chance to buy in the vague hope that his sheer talent could immediately reverse his new team’s floundering fortunes. After all, if Moyes never saw the need of moving for Mezut Özil in the summer, why did he suddenly feel he required a player of a similar playing position just a few months later?
There have, of course, been some positives to come out of Mata’s arrival, and there are plenty of reasons to suggest that the Spaniard could still flourish at Old Trafford. Principal amongst these has been his attitude on the pitch: criticised at Chelsea for his mediocre defensive contribution, his work rate has consistently been impressive under Moyes. His weekly blog, despite admittedly being a heavily targetted bit of marketing, has consistently demonstrated his knowledge and affection for the club and a clear determination to turn things around. In terms of technique, he remains a cut above the majority of his teammates at Old Trafford.
United need to ensure Mata does not become another Juan Sebastian Verón, another prodigal attacking talent who Sir Alex Ferguson was unable to ever really find an effective home for in his Manchester United team. Verón left Old Trafford after just two seasons, and was rarely able to ever again replicate the form that had initially encouraged Ferguson to spend a club record £28.1 million on acquiring him from Lazio in 2001.
Mata’s case is admittedly slightly different, with the player already having proved he has what it takes to deliver in the Premier League, but he must work quickly and effectively with the club’s staff to work out a way to resurrect his form. His manager’s job may well depend on it.