This summer will be one of change at Manchester United. Whether David Moyes stays on as manager or not, it seems certain there will be major transfer activity and a wholesale reshaping of the squad—of which the £37 million purchase of Juan Mata in January was only the beginning.
The Mata signing was a surprising one because he seemed to be such an unlikely fit for the way United have traditionally played. That meant one of two things. Either—and this seemed unlikely given Moyes' habitual caution—he was a panic buy, a big-money splurge designed to appease irritated fans, or he was the first in a wave of transfers that will fundamentally change how United play.
Does he fit with what I would call the typical philosophy of Manchester United? I would say no. The first question, I think, is where are you going to play? Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie are up top if they are fit so where are you going to play him? Are you going to play him off the left or off the right?
It's significant that Mata has played better since Robin van Persie has been sidelined with a knee injury. That has meant Wayne Rooney taking in a striking role when he has played—although Javier Hernandez was used as the lone centre-forward in the 4-0 win over Newcastle United on Saturday—with Mata playing in the central creative role in which he was so effective at Chelsea. It was notable too on Saturday how well he linked up with Shinji Kagawa, who started on the left, although the two often swapped positions.
If United are shifting to a more possession-based approach, it's possible to conceive a future in which three of Mata, Kagawa, Adnan Januzaj and Danny Welbeck operate behind Rooney, in a fluid and aesthetically pleasing front four.
It's been reported that Kagawa, having failed really to establish himself in two seasons at the club, would be sold in the summer, but if there is a change of style, it makes some sense to keep him on and see if he can prosper in the new environment.
If that is what Moyes is considering, though, it does mean the likely departure of at least two of Antonio Valencia, Nani and Ashley Young. There's a major doubt about Van Persie's future, given how disaffected he has appeared at times this season, while there must be a question about how long Javier Hernandez will be prepared to be no more than a gifted substitute.
Further back in the side, it's likely the cuts will have to be even more swinging. Ryan Giggs, surely, will retire at the end of this season—although he may stay on at the club as a full-time coach—but that's only the start of what's likely to be major repair work at the back of midfield.
Marouane Fellaini has struggled this season and it's not clear how he could fit in a possession-based system, while poor Tom Cleverley has become the designated scapegoat and, although he's probably better than he has shown over the past couple of years, a fresh start may be what he needs.
Darren Fletcher probably deserves more time as he continues his comeback from ulcerative colitis and Michael Carrick remains a calming presence, but there is need of at least one and perhaps two truly dynamic central midfielders—as there has been for three or four years.
David De Gea has been one of the few undoubted positives this season, but in front of him the whole back four could be replaced.
Nemanja Vidic is leaving for Inter Milan in the summer and it seems probable that Rio Ferdinand will retire. Patrice Evra has been solid enough but there have been rumours linking him with a move. Rafael is occasionally wild, Alexander Buttner is yet to convince and none of Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling or Phil Jones have really impressed this season, but all will probably survive because of the scale of the changes elsewhere.
There is immediate need of a centre-back and a central midfielder, but if Mata does signal a change in approach, it would be no surprise to see as many as half a dozen new players arrive in the summer.
The first question to answer, though, is who the manager is going to be.