It’s been another tough week for Manchester United. But in the grand scheme of things, they’ve escaped relatively unscathed.
Last weekend’s visit to Stamford Bridge was a frustrating one. United were seconds away from clinching three vital points, but Ross Barkley’s last-minute strike prevented a much-needed win against Jose’s old club.
Next, Mourinho’s men hosted Juventus in the Champions League, a game that saw the return of United hero, Cristiano Ronaldo. United were outclassed by Max Allegri’s side, despite only losing 1-0 thanks to an early Paulo Dybala goal.
Again, the result could have been a lot worse. Juve are favourites to win the tournament, and Jose’s men managed to show their character – in the second half, at least.
Both games saw Jose switch up the structure of his side, bringing Juan Mata in off the right-wing to play behind Romelu Lukaku. These may not be the fairest sample of games to analyse Mata’s contributions to the United attack. However, there were certainly the moments of brilliance we’ve come to expect from the special Juan.
The Starting XI
Much to the shock of many, Jose Mourinho named the same starting 11 in both of Manchester United’s matches against Chelsea and Juve.
De Gea featured in net with a defence of Shaw, Young, Smalling, and Lindelof ahead of him, and Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic in midfield. Meanwhile, Martial and Rashford occupied the flanks with Mata driving through the middle behind Lukaku up top.
Each of Rashford, Martial, and Mata have experience both through the middle and out wide. Mata’s creativity and passing compliments the direct, pacey, and clinical attacking styles of Martial and Rashford.
Even when he came on against Newcastle, Mata’s free-kick could be seen as the catalyst behind the side’s remarkable comeback.
More support for Lukaku
Nevertheless, this setup seemed to work well. In Martial, you have a threat out wide who provides pace, technical ability, and an eye for goal that rivals most strikers in the Premier League.
In Rashford, you have a workhorse who, like Martial, is adept in front of goal, though is more likely to rifle an effort from outside the box.
And finally, in Mata, you have the orchestrator. For what he lacks in pace he makes up for in his passing range and creativity. Often shackled by being deployed out wide, Mata is much more comfortable with the freedom that comes at number 10.
The implications on Pogba
Of course, in choosing to play an attacking midfielder comes the implications of only having two bodies in the deeper channels. Paul Pogba is known to prefer playing in a midfield three, though this summer’s World Cup demonstrated that he can certainly cope in a more defensive role.
Pogba played alongside N’Golo Kante, operating more as a deep-lying playmaker. We’ve often seen Pogba criticised for a lack of overwhelming contributions in attack, but here, we saw him praised for the other aspects of his game. His technical ability, his physicality, and intelligence.
Whether or not Pogba is happy in a deeper role shouldn’t matter as long as United are winning games. I’m sure that’s what would make him happiest.
Juan Mata vs Chelsea
In the Chelsea game, United managed seven attempts on goal, four of which were on target. Martial’s two strikes awarded United a point away from home, though the side’s defensive efforts should be commended.
Against the likes of Eden Hazard, Willian etc. along with Marcos Alonso’s tendency to push forward, United knew they needed to soak up the Blues’ pressure. Unfortunately, they couldn’t quite hold on for long enough and were on the back foot for a lot of the game (as evident by the 37.7% possession they had).
Mata, himself, managed one shot which was on target along with a pass success rate of 77.8%. When played out wide, Mata is often tasked with putting in crosses. When playing through the centre, these responsibilities aren’t as crucial, increasing the chance of a high pass success rate.
As shown by the picture above, Mata didn’t make many crosses into the box at all. In fact, most of the passes the Spaniard made were out wide towards the wingers and wing-backs.
On the right flank, we see Mata make a lot of backward passes to the defensively-minded Ashley Young, while a lot of passes on the left side of the pitch were made forward, either towards Anthony Martial or a much more attacking-minded full-back in Luke Shaw.
The correlation is easy to see: Mata allows those who want to burst forward on the overlap the chance to do so.
Juan Mata vs Juventus
As we can see in the above picture, Mata made a lot more passes in his own half against Juventus than the previous game.
United again received significantly less possession than their opponents (40%). Mourinho’s men also tallied six shots on goal, while Juventus managed 14.
To say Jose Mourinho’s side were on the back foot for most of the first half would be a massive understatement, only creating four chances throughout the entire game.
Unlike the Chelsea game, we can see by his passing map that Mata spent a lot more time drifting wide against Juventus. Although he managed a much higher passing percentage (94.7%), the number of passes he completed was far lower (34).
The truth is, Mata was completely outshined by another number 10 on the field that game, a player which many United fans will be familiar with.
The Paulo Dybala show
Paulo Dybala’s early effort sealed a win for the visitors, earning him the man-of-the-match award. Alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Dybala operated in a free-flowing frontline that devasted United’s defence.
Under Max Allegri, Dybala began the transition from number nine to number 10. Now, he has proven himself as one of the most versatile and devastating attacking threats in the world. Partnered with Cristiano, there’s no reason Juve can’t win anything and everything this year.
While I am not fully against Manchester United regularly incorporating a number 10 into their matchday squad, the recent fixtures against Chelsea and Juventus have shown the kind of attacking threat they are missing without a truly world-class player in the role.
Mata has proven to be a vital player for Mourinho varying the stylistic options at his disposal. However, whether it’s sustainable is yet to be seen. Alexis Sanchez is still waiting to kick-start his Manchester United career, and if a place through the middle behind Lukaku is up for grabs then we could see what he truly has to offer.
This weekend, against Everton, we will learn whether this system is in Jose’s long-term plans or just a flash in the pan. Either way, Mata is certainly worthy of an opportunity to show what he can do in his preferred position.