Mata at Manchester United: Versatile but underwhelming

Michael Cox runs the rule over Juan Mata's first six games as a Manchester United player...

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On paper, Manchester United’s signing of Juan Mata was one of the most sensational transfers of recent years.

The current Premier League champions signing the Player of the Year from one of their biggest rivals – even if he was forced out at Chelsea – should have had a transformative impact upon their campaign, but things haven’t quite gone to plan since the Spanish playmaker arrived.

Although statistically Mata recorded three assists in his first three games for David Moyes’ side, in reality none of the three passes were genuinely penetrative balls. They were either slightly fortunate passes, or they were simple sideways balls to a player who turned an unthreatening situation into a goal, as for Ashley Young’s excellent strike against Cardiff. We haven’t yet seen the Mata of the past two seasons in a red shirt.

United are certainly a better side with Mata – whereas their play often seemed rather boxy before his arrival, Mata provides clever angles for passes between the lines, and his distribution has been reliable, if not always inventive. However, Mata’s form has dropped to match that of United, rather than United’s form rising to meet Mata’s level.

Mata made his United debut against Cardiff from his favoured No.10 position, although his movement throughout the game was interesting. Rather than remaining in central positions behind Robin van Persie, he drifted towards the flanks, finding pockets of space towards the channels as United looked to attack down the wings. He seemed to facilitate United’s crossing game, rather than provide an alternative.

Interestingly, considering his lack of defensive work-rate was the major reason Jose Mourinho sold him, Mata also committed three fouls as he attempted to regain possession.

His next game, against Stoke, was also interesting. Here, Mata started on the right with Wayne Rooney and Van Persie up front, but drifted diagonally across the pitch into left-sided positions.

Although he played a couple of decent passes from central zones, and picked up another assist, again he seemed part of United’s crossing approach rather than the antithesis of it, and none of his nine crosses were successful as United suffered an embarrassing 2-1 defeat.

Mata’s third game, the 2-2 draw at home to Fulham, was a test of his ability to break down a parked bus – Fulham took an early lead, then sat extremely deep.

Mata’s passing diagram reflects this – he barely misplaced a pass in central positions, but his distribution in the final third was understandably less consistent. A couple of his chances created were from set-pieces lofted into the box, too, and whereas he became a regular goalscorer at Chelsea, he failed to take advantage of shooting situations from the edge of the box here, failing to work Maarten Stekelenburg from three attempts.

In a completely different type of game away at Arsenal, a dull 0-0 where Mata generally received the ball in the middle third, he was again disappointing with his shooting – two shots, neither on target.

His fifth game, the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, was his most promising yet. Although United rather stumbled to victory in the second half, the shape of the side was the most fluid we’ve seen under Moyes – both Mata and Adnan Januzaj were deployed on the flanks, but given license to move inside into the centre of the pitch.

Mata got through his defensive work reliably, continually picking up possession in a right-sided position, before drifting into his favoured No.10 role, where he created a variety of chances on the edge of the box.

He was quieter, however, in the comfortable 3-0 win over West Brom – sticking to his right-sided position and rarely creating goalscoring chances – although this is partly because United were leading for the majority of the game and therefore could afford to slow the tempo, and keep possession without attempting to penetrate the opposition repeatedly.

It’s notable, in his recent two games, however, that he very rarely attempts to dribble past an opponent – he relies upon the movement of others to play quick, clever passes and to combine dangerously on the edge of the box. That hasn’t always been forthcoming from his team-mates, particularly the two forwards.

In all, it’s been a mixed bag for Mata, and his role at United isn’t yet clear. We know he’d rather play permanently in his favoured No.10 position, but the presence of Rooney and Van Persie means he’s been starting from the flank.

Mata should be United’s new star man, the playmaker they base their attacking around, taking full advantage of his creative talents between the lines. But with Rooney and Van Persie dominant, and Moyes still preferring to attack down the wings, Mata seems something of a sideshow.

We probably won’t see the best of the Spanish playmaker until next season, when United can reformat their side and, hopefully, make Mata the main man.