In comparison to their frankly comical display in the summer, Manchester United’s transfer activity in the January window was positively professional. There were no inside leaks, no rushed loan offers and no unaffiliated lawyers trawling around Spain looking for a decent central midfielder. Instead, United’s sole piece of activity was the acquisition of Spanish playmaker, Juan Mata.
For the pretty sum of £37.1 million, United purchased Chelsea’s player of the year who, after being castigated by Jose Mourinho, was keen to secure his place in Spain’s world cup squad. And so, the question must be asked, where does a player of such fine quality fit into such a threadbare Manchester United team?
Over the last two seasons, Mata developed into one of the league’s finest players whilst deployed in the #10 role behind the striker. Roaming behind the likes of Torres and Drogba, the diminutive forward created and finished over 40 goals- an output puts him on a par with Manchester City’s magician, David Silva.
However, United’s most problematical area this season, and every season for the last 5 years, has been central midfielder. The squad is already filled with at least 3 players who can play in the #10 role in Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj. To spend such a vast amount of money strengthening such an area seems surprising, if not foolish.
Yet, it seems that Moyes’ move for Mata was driven less out of necessity and more out of opportunity. Quite rightly, when given the chance to purchase one of the Premier League’s finest players, Woodward was given the green light to go out and get the player. As it so happened, that player was not a central midfielder- Yaya Toure or Sandro would have been ideal- but an attacking one.
And so, Manchester United are now blessed with another mercurial attacking talent.
However, it remains to be seen how David Moyes plans to get the best out of him. So far, the Scotsman has shown a steadfast reluctance to move away from his favoured 4-4-2 formation, much to the displeasure of many fans, and emphasised (and over emphasised) his reliance on ‘getting to the byline.’
Clearly, Juan Mata is a player capable of shifting the ball onto his left foot and sweeping a ball into the box but it is clearly a waste of a player who can be so incisive when deployed in his favoured central role. Admittedly, it is no different to how Januzaj is and should be being used but that is a different matter. The youngster is only 18, adapting to the Premier League and lacks the gravitas to dictate the formation of a whole team, regardless of how woeful they may be playing, but Mata does.
If Moyes wants to get the best out of his new signing and hopefully salvage some semblance of integrity from his first season at Old Trafford, he is going to have to step out of his comfort zone and adjust his tactics accordingly. Adopting a more fluid formation, without rigid wingers and stubborn crossing, would be one way for Moyes to show the disconcerted United faithful that he has recognised one of the issues in the team and is prepared to explore some more creative options.
As such, many will be hoping to see a 4-2-3-1 formation or 4-2-2-2 formation on Sunday, against Fulham, with Mata either being deployed directly behind or just to the side of the centre forwards. In doing that, and by pushing the whole team a further 10-15 yards up the field, United will hopefully be able to find some fluidity and begin to play like defending Premier League champions.
Of course, such a change is dependent upon a strong midfield core, something which Manchester United currently lack, but the return of Fellaini at least offers United fans some hope in that regard- even if he did nothing to encourage them before injury.
The Belgian undeniably struggled to adjust to his new surroundings in August and September but with the spectre of the World Cup looming over him, the 6ft 4″ will surely be aiming to improve in order to ensure his place in the Belgium squad, who are currently 17/1 to win the World Cup this year according to free bets.
But if he can make an impact and at least offer the offensive players a base to build on, Mata could prove to be a devastating addition to the team in the three remaining months of the season. Whether that will be enough to get United anywhere near fourth spot remains to be seen (regardless of how unlikely it may look after Saturday’s dismal performance against Stoke City) but at least it gives their otherwise underwhelming squad a fighting chance.
There are a lot of ifs and buts in that equation but it stands to reason that the addition of a £37 million playmaker cannot fail to improve a flailing team’s prospects this season, even if Moyes’ refusal to sign a stop-gap central midfielder seems more bemusing by the game. Let’s see how it pans out.