Juan Mata made the move to join Manchester United FC with a record contract, despite claims from critics that he was little more than a miniature version of Robin van Persie. The slow start to the supposedly improved offense, featuring the new “big three” of Mata, van Persie, and Wayne Rooney, has done little to silence the nay-sayers. The criticisms, however, may have been a bit premature.
Even the television coverage on NBCSN of the Manchester United match against Aston Villa on Saturday made more-than-casual reference to the miniature stature of Mata. When Villa scored on a free kick to take an early lead, the immediate observation on the part of the commentators was that the ball had gone over the heads of the United players on the wall. The fact that it was Rooney’s head that the ball went over did not prevent Mata from being mentioned. The height references continued through much of the first half, with every poor clear from Fellaini and Büttner, the call was nonetheless pointing to the fact that it was “over the head of Mata” or “too high for Mata.” Though probably not intentional, it painted a picture which suggested that Mata might not be holding up in his move to the center of the field.
The move was not made in vain, however, as United began to see the benefit of moving Mata to the middle before long. Even without van Persie, out for an estimate four to six weeks, the squad found a dynamic which worked for them. The penalty shot which Rooney masterfully put past Villa’s American goalie, Brad Guzan, was the result of a beautiful play on net by Mata being interrupted by a foul from the Villa defense.
Moving Mata into the center, and keeping Shinji Kagawa attacking up the wing, proved an excellent combination for the United front. The give-and-go dynamic which was showcased so often in the early stages of this campaign between Rooney and van Persie was replaced by the three-sided attack. With Mata and Kagawa feeding Rooney in the middle up front, taking advantage of his natural strengths, they quickly found a comfortable rhythm. The first goal of the match, scored off of a ball in from Kagawa to Rooney, made it almost look easy. Mata, finding his feet in the new scheme, put one past Guzan in the second half to bring the score to 3-1 and put a nail into the coffin for Villa. Chicharito’s goal at the end of the match was icing on the cake.
There may have been banners flying over the stadium calling for the sacking of manager David Moyes, but that did not distract the squad from the task at hand. The outside pressures on the team and manager alike were set aside as, down on the pitch, a different story was unfolding. By moving Mata to a more advantageous position, making the most of what he brings to the table, Moyes and Manchester United FC may have begun to see a real return on their investment in the miniature middle-man.
Commentary by Jim Malone