It cost Manchester United £37.1 million to buy Juan Mata from Chelsea in January of last year. He didn’t fit in well in the tactical system of David Moyes, and he has mainly been on the periphery of Louis Van Gaal’s team for Angel Di Maria, Ander Herrera, and lately even Marouane Fellaini. He was given another chance to prove his mettle against Tottenham after Di Maria’s red card against Arsenal in the FA Cup. Because of that, Mata may just be the player that propels Manchester United back into the Champions League.
Luxury player is a bit of a backhanded compliment in soccer terms. It signifies that somehow he is less useful to a squad from a starting role than say, Michael Carrick or Ander Herrera. He’s a luxury player because his track record for helping out defensively is not good. It’s the main reason why Jose Mourinho didn’t want him at Chelsea. But being a player who doesn’t track back to defend enough does not necessarily warrant exclusion, not when the player is as gifted as Mata is. With the tactical system that Louis Van Gaal has favored recently, Mata should be starting every game, and his defensive frailties will be covered.
Playing Marouane Fellaini and Carrick, who recently signed a new contract, offers a defensive backbone to cover for Mata’s lack of tracking back, and frees him up to focus on creating opportunities and chances. He can operate underneath the striker or out wide without issue, since his creativity isn’t limited by position. His tactical instincts are also wonderful, so he can process the game brilliantly well no matter where he’s playing (something Angel Di Maria has struggled with playing in about five different positions). It’s no coincidence that his 2 best performances in a Manchester United shirt have come in games where he has little defensive responsibility, and can focus on creating and scoring, which he did against both Spurs and Liverpool.
Van Gaal has set up his team to eat possession and keep control of the ball because of his side’s clear defensive issues, which is the reason why Van Gaal was probably hesitant to play Mata earlier in the season. But Van Gaal almost threw out the baby with the bathwater because he had few other creative options to bring into his squad, meaning Manchester United controlled possession and did little else. They were too slow in both keeping possession and creating chances, which meant they were easily susceptible to quick counter-attacks – evidenced by the disaster that was their day out at the King Power Stadium against Leicester City. Now, with the squad a bit more refined and Mata introduced, they are still keeping possession as well as they did before, but they are more decisive in the final third, which Mata has become a huge part of.
United haven’t created many chances this year by virtue of their tactical set-up to retain possession, but they are clinical with the chances they do create. It helps to have a player like Mata who can finish and create killer chances with ease, and help out Wayne Rooney or whoever turns out to be the goalscorers on the day. Van Gaal has named only two unchanged XI’s this season, and the second one against Liverpool may be an indication of how he sees Mata’s role evolving with the defensive cover he can now put behind him.
Mata’s best performances in a Manchester United shirt have come at just the right time as United’s fixture list gets tougher by the week. Because of Mata’s individual performances, and Van Gaal’s newfound trust in him, United have looked better than they ever have this term, and it just might propel them into the Champions League because of it.
The luxury player is no longer a luxury, he’s a necessity.
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