When Manchester United signed Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa in the summer of 2012, concerns were raised. Kagawa’s natural position, where he had been so effective at Dortmund was "at 10," the short hand, of course, for the attacking playmaker—a creative fulcrum between midfield and attack.
When Kagawa was initially signed, there was an assumption that he would be picked to play behind Rooney, a player who has performed many functions at Manchester United in his career but whose most prolific seasons had come in 2011/12 and especially 2009/10 when he played as a No. 9, the most advanced of United’s forwards.
Van Persie’s arrival changed all that. As this Daily Mail story on comments made on United’s official website says, van Persie describes himself and Rooney as occupying the "nine and a half" role, both capable of coming deep and linking play, both capable of devastating efficiency in the box.
This left Kagawa marginalised, often played on the left wing where the consensus is that he is not at his best. If Kagawa was bought to play behind Rooney, then the opportunistic purchase of van Persie changed all that.
The truth is, however, Rooney and van Persie’s roles were not as indistinct as the nine-and-a-half tag might indicate. Generally speaking, whilst they can both play either role, Rooney has played deeper than van Persie.
This plays to their strengths. Rooney’s link-up play is better than van Persie’s, van Persie’s finishing is better than Rooney’s.
The arrival of Juan Mata adds yet another dimension to this already complex dynamic. The sheer unabashed, childlike joy felt in response to United signing one of the world’s finest players has given way to a more analytical consideration of just how David Moyes will choose to incorporate these three very fine players into the same team.
Firstly, there are certain non-negotiables. Moyes’ unrelenting media campaign of praise for Rooney has made it abundantly clear that he is the first name on the team sheet.
Whilst Sir Alex Ferguson may have chosen to rotate Rooney and sacrifice the best of him for the sake of broader functionality, it is not clear whether Moyes either wants to, or knows how to, do this.
The other key non-negotiable is that, barring injuries and the occasional rotation for the sake of rest, Mata must play. Given the size of the transfer fee and the quality of the player, Mata is a marquee signing in every sense. He will be a central part of Moyes’ plans.
Van Persie’s position is less certain. The rumours of his discontent have reached the point where the Daily Mail have even speculated that a return to Arsenal may be on the cards. This rumour seems profoundly counter-intuitive, not least of all because of the way he celebrated his goal against them earlier this season.
So how will Moyes manage this situation?
The trio of superstars were all on the pitch against Stoke, and their positioning and interplay may offer some insight into what the future might hold.
So far, it is not great news for those of us hoping that Mata’s arrival would bring about an immediate transition to a tactically flexible 4-2-3-1 (just to get my biases out in the open!), although there were certainly positives.
First, the good news. Mata fed van Persie for United’s goal, right at the start of the second half, with Mata tucked in centrally, almost directly behind the Dutchman.
The bad news, however, was that the first half had seen little of that, with Mata largely reduced to patrolling the touchline and whipping in crosses which were easily dealt with by Stoke’s central defenders.
Mata is essentially at United because Jose Mourinho appeared to believe he could not be relied upon to do the defensive duties required of him if played on the flanks.
His best qualities, his short passing, his wonderful touch, his eye for a killer pass and a goal are all served best by playing either behind the striker or operating from a wide position with licence to roam.
With Rooney and either Adnan Januzaj or Kagawa, Mata could form part of a very fluid attacking unit. This was in evidence during the second half against Stoke, with Ashley Young as the third player in attacking midfield.
As United tried desperately to claw their way back into the game, Mata spent more and more time roaming centrally.
The idea of Januzaj, Rooney and Mata in a three behind van Persie may sound like a prospect to drool over, but it does cause some problems. First of all, it needs Moyes to shift out of his current mindset, which appears to prize attacks down the flanks above all (32 crosses against Stoke. Of which five made their way to a United player).
Whilst that attacking unit would certainly have the ability to get in behind the full-backs and put in a decent cross, it is quick interplay and a more tiki-taka approach that will get the best out of players of that quality. That does not sound like the Moyes way to me.
There is also a genuine problem in that in order to play that way, the spine of the team needs to be able to compensate for the defensive instability caused by the need for the full-backs to provide a great deal of the attacking width.
Ferguson always relied on his central defenders to be able to operate one against one with minimal support from full-backs.
In 2008, with Gary Neville or Wes Brown at right-back and a younger Patrice Evra at left-back, the rock-solid abilities of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Edwin Van Der Sar were required in order for United to maintain their defensive solidity as full-backs bombed forward.
United’s spine is in serious need of osteopathy at the moment. Between injuries, suspension and a collapse of form, central defence is a serious issue.
The less said about central midfield the better, except to say for the "3" in a 4-2-3-1 to be at their most effective they need both support and cover from the "2" deeper-lying midfielders—and at the moment, they mostly get neither.
So, it seems likely that for now, until the promised transformational summer transfer window, Mata will spend a lot of time on the wing, sacrificed to expediency.
Rooney may be forced to play deeper than he would like, to cover for the shortcomings of his midfield colleagues.
Van Persie may find himself isolated by footballing geography and feeding off scraps.
But there will be moments when it clicks.
When the special Juan drifts inside and beats a man, sliding a perfectly-weighted through ball to RVP, as Adnan makes a run to draw the defender away from Wayne as he bursts into space to finish Robin’s cut-back.
As they get to know each other better, they will bring the best out of each other and maybe even find a way to drag the best out of David Moyes.
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