Grading Manchester United's Juan Mata Signing Two Months In

Rob Blanchette@@_Rob_BFeatured ColumnistMarch 26, 2014

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 25:  Javier Hernandez of Manchester United and team-mates Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney (R) look dejected after conceding the third goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on March 25, 2014 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

It is the morning after the night before. The day after Manchester United fans realised just how far their club has slipped after a 3-0 humbling at home to neighbours Manchester City.

The Sky Blues did not even have to move through the gears to slice United to ribbons on their own turf. They were faster to every ball. They were technically more superior. They wanted it more. 

It was yet another evening David Moyes will wish to forget, especially his selection of Tom Cleverley to deal with the threat of Yaya Toure. It was a bizarre decision to bring in a player with such poor recent form to combat one of the best midfielders in Europe. 

This tactical car crash, once again moving away from the 4-2-3-1 that worked so beautifully against West Ham, severely impacted the performances of both Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, leaving the two attackers miles away from each other, not allowing them to link or interchange.

The problem with Mata now is: How can Moyes fit him into his system?

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 25:  Samir Nasri of Manchester City competes with Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata (R) of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on March 25, 2014
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

When Mata signed for United, it was a great coup by the club. In a January transfer market with no discernible meat on the bone, to produce a sirloin steak of the quality of the Spanish international was a remarkable feat. 

Forget that United's weaknesses lay elsewhere. It was a signing worth every penny. Mata is a truly world-class player and one of the wizards of the Premier League. The trick now is to let him use his magic to cast a spell over United's foes. 

At the moment, Moyes is trying to balance out his new signing's defensive contribution, and it is this kind of pragmatism that ruins a talent like Mata.

The player has now played 771 minutes for United, per Squawka, and has not even looked close to opening his goalscoring account. 

Though not the most prolific No. 10 in history, Mata was always dangerous in and around the penalty area for Chelsea, but Moyes' tactics have seen him wider and deeper, and as a result, the potential threat is extinguished. 

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 05:  Juan Mata of Chelsea scores the winning goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on May 5, 2013 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

He was at his most fluid against West Ham where he was allowed to play closer to Rooney and Shinji Kagawa. However, United's tactical inaptitude was there for all to see on Tuesday against City, and once again, Mata was the odd-man out. 

Observations of Mata in the Manchester derby do cause great curiosity. When he has the ball at his feet, he appears to be 10 pages further into the story than his teammates. 

He constantly looks up to play a forward pass, only to see his attacking brethren static. The all-action hero Rooney is great at chasing lost causes and covering defensively, but he rarely makes that sweet run into the channel that a player like Mata needs ahead of him. 

Mata looks lost in Moyes' Manchester United line-up. He's a player who can give so much more, but ultimately will not be afforded the positional freedom he needs to be influential.

It makes you question just why Moyes purchased him.

FourFourTwo writer Sam Pilger was damning in his assessments of all of United's recent purchases. He tweeted: 


The words "panic buy" are overused in football, and a player of the stature of Mata could never be described as this. But better coaches would know how to use his talents, and in the nine games he has featured for the Reds, this is yet to be fully displayed.

There is a feeling that the player's time at Old Trafford could replicate Juan Sebastian Veron's ill-fated two years in a United shirt.

Veron was one of the best players in the world at the time. United signed him to much fanfare and his pedigree was undeniable. 

However, the Red Devils had Roy Keane, and this stopped us from ever seeing the best of him. Sir Alex Ferguson played him across the whole of the midfield and even behind the striker, but he could not accommodate him in his best role. Ultimately, he was a huge waste of money.

This could be Mata's destiny also.

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 30:  Juan Sebastian Veron of Man Utd during trains in front of Sir Alex Ferguson during training ahead of the  Champions World Series game between Manchester United and Juventus on July 30, 2003 at The Rutgers Stadium in New Jersey, Ne
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images


Moyes has the same blind spot that Fergie always had. He's squeezing players into a system even when it is clear they cannot play in a certain position.

Some would say that footballers should be able to play anywhere on the park, but it is like asking someone with a car driver's licence to then drive a bus. Yes, you still have four wheels. Yes, you still have to steer the vehicle. But there are fundamental differences between the two practices. 

Mata wants to play progressive attacking football, yet when United get into the last third, the ball then gets pulled back to Michael Carrick, who then finds a centre-back, who then knocks it back to David de Gea.

Dynamic, it is not. 

Mata's first two months as a United player have been nothing short of average, but little of this has been his fault. He is being asked to perform functions, rather than play to his potential.

Moyes may think he can mould the Spaniard into something else, just as Fergie did with Veron, but no matter how good he is, the diminutive forward will only ever be hitting false ceilings in terms of performance.

At this rate, Mata will not be going to the World Cup this summer, and this could damage his morale long-term at United. With Rooney the golden boy of Moyes' future, Mata will always be playing second fiddle.

But Mata is the type of player that a team should be built around, and if Rooney is to be his Roy Keane, the 25-year-old's stay at Old Trafford might be a short one. 


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