Operating behind Wayne Rooney the duo linked up a number of times to play short, incisive passes that kept the opposition guessing. At times it was mesmeric and, at the very least, it was a pleasant change from the mechanical and predictable crossing that has typified so many United performances this season.
It was a sign of the future, if David Moyes chooses to accept it.
Mata and Kagawa can both be effective in United’s starting XI
Many fans and pundits pointed to the signing of Mata as the beginning of the end for Kagawa at United, but that was shown not to be the case on a wet London evening on Saturday.
Mata took charge of the game, initiating attacks and keeping the ball moving, while Kagawa offered a constant outlet tucked in on the left-hand side. They didn’t clash or get in each other’s way; rather, they combined to great effect.
Mata, in particular, impressed in his favoured role. There’s an elegance about the Spaniard’s game that has been missing from United sides in recent years, and he created a golden chance for Kagawa early on. The Japanese couldn’t oblige with a finish, but it was neat link-up play nonetheless.
Ultimately, it was refreshing to see some free-flowing, counter-attacking football, which Mata and Kagawa were at the heart of. But that was only possible because of two excellent performances in defensive midfield.
Mata and Kagawa will need two midfield anchors in order to flourish
The caveat to Mata and Kagawa leading United forward is that they must be anchored by two physical, ball-playing midfielders who will allow them to roam free.
After all, Mata and, to a lesser extent, Kagawa are not the most defensively-minded players. It was for that reason Mata found himself frozen out at Chelsea.
But Mata and Kagawa were ably assisted on Saturday by Darren Fletcher and Marouane Fellaini, who provided an insight into what United need next season.
Rumours that United will land Sporting Lisbon’s William Carvalho in a £37 million deal this summer, per Steve Bates of the Sunday People (h/t ESPN), push forward the argument that United should play a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. Whether Fellaini has a long-term starting role in United’s midfield remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that he has been more impressive in recent weeks.
Will Moyes choose to play Mata and Kagawa in the same team?
The wider context to this argument is whether Moyes wants to go for a more progressive starting XI. Arguably, with Robin van Persie fit, he would play Rooney in behind the Dutchman and start Mata on the right—something which the Scot has opted for in recent weeks.
Should Mata play as a No.10 ahead of Rooney?
But the win over West Ham must signal the dawn of a new era.
Mata and Kagawa are both better No. 10s than Rooney, as United looked far more comfortable in possession with that pair seeing more of the ball. The signing of Carvalho, or another player of that ilk, will give United a midfield presence that allows the natural attacking flair of Mata and Kagawa to come through.
And it’s important to reaffirm that they are two very different players despite their similarities. Mata, an archetypal No. 10, is a supreme passer and is capable of manipulating the ball in whatever way he deems fit. Kagawa, yearning to play in that No. 10 role, is quicker, more agile and can wriggle in and out of opposition tackles.
They are a potent duo, one that Moyes must look to use more often.