Much of the talk at the end of the World Cup centred around incoming Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal and which players he would, or wouldn't, rebuild the team around in his first season at Old Trafford.
The first few pre-season friendlies have given a clear indication of United heading into the new campaign playing a back-three system, akin to that which he utilised during the summer with the Netherlands.
There will be fierce competition for places with a clutch of second-line attacking players at Manchester United from last season, but the system should give Spanish forward Juan Mata the perfect platform to prove his enormous worth and become a key player for the Red Devils.
Layout and Role
In the 3-5-2 variation that Van Gaal uses, Mata is the natural fit for the attacking central midfield position, ahead of two midfield pivots and behind two forwards. He is a link player, able to fill the role of both playmaker and line-breaker, pulling sideways from central to pick up the ball on the turn and head directly toward goal, either with a pass or a dribble.
Shinji Kagawa, Adnan Januzaj and a couple of others are rivals for the position, but Mata has the price tag, the ability and the proven delivery in the Premier League to get the first shot at the No. 10 role.
LvG has made Mata as his 1st choice No.10 for MUFC, he's deeply impressed by Mata's football intelligence & technical ability. [Independent]— Wicky (@Wicknes007) July 27, 2014
Playing in that central role does not preclude him from working down the channels to find space, and his pace allows him to run into the forward line very quickly at the right moment. As ever in the attack, off-the-ball movement and ability to see the game open up is vital, and Mata has plenty of this attribute to his game.
Rooney and Mata
The two-up-top approach allows Van Gaal to likely pair Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney high up the pitch, though both are wont to roam the front line and drop in to link play as well.
As such, this potential combination and rotation between Rooney and Mata is a hugely interesting one—when one drops deep, either exploiting space or dragging a defender with him, the other is able and willing to race beyond, maintain a presence high up the field and be a great danger in the penalty box.
Louis van Gaal talking to Sky Sports:'A 3-5-2 would be good for Rooney, Mata and Van Persie - For 4-3-3 I'd need specialists on the wings'.— BeNeFoot (@BeNeFoot) July 29, 2014
It could lead to United seeing more of a 3-4-2-1 than a 3-4-1-2 in open play as the two interchange positions behind Van Persie, but the numbers aren't important—creating and making use of the space is. With just one No. 10 and wing-backs rather than wingers, a lot of emphasis falls on the composure, creativity and consistency of the player who picks up the ball in that area.
As if Mata alone wasn't enough, United have the players to cause opponents even more problems with a simple run and switch.
Being a more than capable finisher, Mata should certainly be looking at 15 goals for the season as a minimum requirement once United get up and running in their new tactics and system.
He was also a huge source of chances for Chelsea before Jose Mourinho opted to take him out of the team. If he's playing high up the field with plenty of men behind him to do the main bulk of the defensive work, Mata could easily return to creating around 90 or 100 chances over the course of the Premier League season.
Juan Mata believes the demand for perfection from new Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal is precisely what the team needs. [Guardian]— SportlobsterFootball (@Football_SL) July 28, 2014
Of course, that's all dependent on him finding his very best form, which he hasn't quite managed for United so far.
But once again, the system being used is designed to get the best out of key players, one of whom is most certainly Juan Mata.