Louis Van Gaal Must Define Juan Mata's Role at Manchester United

Stuart Howard-CofieldFeatured ColumnistJuly 11, 2014

Manchester United's Juan Mata during their English Premier League soccer match against Newcastle United at St James' Park, Newcastle, England, Saturday, April 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
Scott Heppell/Associated Press

With only a third-place play-off match against Brazil left to play in the FIFA World Cup, Louis van Gaal’s thoughts will now be turning to his squad at Manchester United. Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw are welcome additions, but they look unlikely to be the last dealings of the summer.

There will be as much interest in the players whom Van Gaal allows to leave as those whom he brings in, though. With last season’s flop Marouane Fellaini likely to exit, according to Ian Ladyman of the Daily Mail, there have also been questions asked about whether there is still a role for David Moyes’ other signing, Juan Mata.

Mata joined United from Chelsea in the January transfer window last season. Whether he was actually the player whom the Reds required was open to debate, as shown in The Independent. There was no doubt, though, that he was the player David Moyes needed to lift the gloom shrouding Old Trafford at that time.

Will the new manager also find a place for the Spaniard in his side?

Van Gaal took a young and workmanlike Netherlands side to within a whisker of the World Cup final, a fact that will have raised expectations of a swift turnaround of fortune for United.

Almost immediately upon Van Gaal’s appointment, it was reported by The Express and other media outlets that United might be willing to offload Mata only months into his United career, as it was thought that he would not feature in Van Gaal’s plans for the club.

More recent reports appear to suggest that the Dutchman does see a future at the club for the 26-year-old playmaker, though.

The Manchester Evening News’ Andy Mitten detailed the long-running courtship that was played out between Manchester United and Cesc Fabregas last summer. With the ex-Arsenal man suddenly available again this summer, the dealings looked certain to be resurrected.

However, according to Paul Hetherington in the Daily Star last month, the presence of Juan Mata in the United squad prompted Van Gaal to pull the plug on negotiations. If that is the case, then a definite role for the Spaniard must be defined.

With a flair for accurate, probing passing and a keen eye for goal, Mata’s natural role is as a No. 10, lying behind Robin van Persie. At Manchester United, though, there is the formidable figure of Wayne Rooney standing in the way—and we have been in this situation before.

Rui Vieira/Associated Press

Often unable to influence the game when pushed out to the right of midfield, to deploy Mata in his best position would mean asking Wayne Rooney to withdraw from his own favoured position.

This is, of course, a role that he has filled on many occasions, and thanks to his all-action displays, some think it is a role he is best suited for. However, it also happens to be one that he appeared to have been unhappy to play in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final year in charge of the club, prompting him to request a transfer.

Before the renewal of his contract at United last season, Sky Sports reported Rooney as saying "I've had no problem playing out of position in the past, but I'm a forward and I felt I deserved the right to play in my position.” The Liverpudlian appeared much happier being played further forward by David Moyes, despite the poor season that the Red Devils endured.

Rooney has enjoyed a strained relationship with his side’s supporters over the last few seasons, something that certainly cannot be levelled at Mata since his arrival in England. Chelsea supporters had taken such a shine to him that there were few of the usual insults and accusations of disloyalty hurled in his direction upon his move to Manchester.

Likewise, the ebullient reception that Mata received on his arrival at an ailing Manchester United shows no sign of abating. Little touches such as reaching out to supporters with a weekly blog called “One Hour Behind” (now integrated in his own website)—win, lose or draw—and tweeting photographs of himself enjoying his time at the club museum all help. 

Both players will feature for the duration of United’s pre-season USA tour. According to the Daily Mail, their new manager will not take a break after the World Cup and will also head off to join the team as soon as possible, giving the pair the chance to stake their claim.

The Netherlands reached the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup thanks in part to Van Gaal’s mixture of unexpected and inspired substitutions, timely tactical re-shuffles and thrilling comebacks. Every player in his side worked furiously to their manager's instructions with a clearly defined role. 

Something has to give. Van Gaal is certainly not afraid to make big decisions. It will make interesting viewing to see how he deals with his No. 10 conundrum.