Correspondent Column: The Spain international is desperate to play in the No.10 role and his manager now has the chance to utilise his talents as Wayne Rooney is moved upfront
By Greg Stobart
Juan Mata might have thought that Manchester United would look to build the side around him after deciding to pay a club record £37.1 million to prize him away from rivals Chelsea in January.
But by the start of this month, Mata was already seeking meetings with David Moyes and asking the United manager for the opportunity to play in his preferred No.10 position, frustrated at being used in a wide role from the right.
Moyes told Mata that the Spaniard would be used on the right as he beds into the side, while the Scot plans to build the team around Wayne Rooney, who prefers to play as a second striker rather than the focal point of the attack.
It makes you wonder why Moyes even bothered to sign him.
The fact is that Moyes only opted to sign Mata as disastrous results meant the pressure to strengthen the squad reached breaking point from both inside the club and among supporters.
The Scot would have preferred to wait until the summer to make a move for a more mobile attacking midfielder who can start from wide positions, with Borussia Dortmund star Marco Reus his top target for that role.
Yet Moyes accepted the acquisition of Mata, driven by under-pressure executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, and we may now see the 25-year-old show his worth to the side following the knee injury that will keep Robin van Persie out of action for at least four weeks.
The Manchester derby on Tuesday could yet be a pivotal game in terms of Moyes’s future beyond the summer.
He earned some credit with the 3-0 comeback win over Olympiakos last week to book a Champions League quarter-final tie against holders Bayern Munich.
But that success will soon be forgotten if Moyes oversees another humiliating result against City after the 3-0 defeat to Liverpool at Old Trafford last weekend and the thumping 4-1 surrender in his first Manchester derby in September.
Van Persie’s absence means Rooney is likely to operate as the central striker, with Mata in behind and more suitable wide men in the likes of Adnan Januzaj, Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young.
Mata produced his best performance for United in Saturday’s 2-0 win at West Ham – his eighth appearance for the club – in which he completed 53 passes with 94 per cent accuracy and found space to use his intelligence and creativity between the lines.
Mata is not a winger, not someone you want tracking back to follow a full-back, nor a player who has the physical attributes to stretch his legs and storm past defenders with the ball.
In his preferred central position, he can make things happen. It also forces Rooney higher up the pitch where he can use his eye for goal – although the forward managed to score from virtually the halfway line on Saturday.
All season, United have lacked a structure or playing identity, with their tactics largely reduced to shifting the ball out wide and lumping aimless crosses into the box towards static forwards.
It has resulted in a miserable first season for Moyes, with the Premier League champions 12 points behind Manchester City having played two matches more than their city rivals ahead of the Old Trafford clash on Tuesday.
But the response to the Liverpool defeats – victories against Olympiakos and West Ham – have offered some hope for United supporters while the noises from within the club all suggest that a huge spending splurge is being prepared for the summer.
United have already experienced a few false dawns this season and City are capable of destroying their suspect defence and weak central midfield.
But at the other end Moyes may finally have stumbled across a formula that gets the best out of his talented attacking players. And it includes playing Mata in his best position.
WENGER NO-SHOW LEAVES MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
After all the positive press in the build-up to his 1000th game as Arsenal manager, perhaps Arsene Wenger was just too ashamed to face the written media after the 6-0 humiliation by Chelsea on Saturday.
I’ve never known Wenger to shirk a tough question. In fact, the Arsenal manager is well known for fronting up and tackling uncomfortable issues in low moments.
I don’t buy Arsenal’s excuse that Wenger had to catch the team bus and so missed his post-match press conference on Saturday.
He then cancelled Monday’s pre-match media duties to preview Arsenal’s clash with Swansea this week.
It’s all a rather confusing situation. Wenger is no doubt devastated by the Chelsea result and the fact that Arsenal look out of the title race, but could there be more going on at the Emirates? And, if so, what?
BRING IN VIDEO TO AVOID FURTHER EMBARRASSMENTS
It’s such a shame that the biggest talking point from a weekend of sensational matches and stunning goals is a terrible but completely avoidable refereeing error.
Whatever you think of the prospect of technology in the game, surely we can all agree that someone should be able to help out the referee to avoid a repeat of the farcical scenes at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
Andre Marriner probably knew he had sent off the wrong man before Kieran Gibbs had reached the away changing room.
All it needed was for the fourth official to watch a replay and identify Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as the Arsenal player who handled the ball.
That’s not to say that every controversial incident should be referred to someone sitting in front of a television monitor.
But for once it would nice to see some common sense so we can get the correct decisions and avoid these embarrassments.