It’s almost official: Manchester United have signed Juan Mata from Chelsea for £37 million, an untypically huge transfer for the month of January and between rivals. The question of was it worth it for both teams remains unanswered.
Some players are going to thrive no matter what the situation is, while others need a certain system and environment to make them play their best football. Manchester United are learning that quite well from their misuse and yo-yo decisions regarding Shinji Kagawa. Isn’t Juan Mata the same in a way?
Mata is capable of playing on the left wing, but only if it’s possession style football, with something of a diamond midfield, something Alex Ferguson used last season at times. In any case, his natural position is playing behind the striker(s), which means we might see a 4-3-1-2 from Manchester United, with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie up front. The problem with that? Manchester United don’t have the squad to pull it off.
For the 4-3-1-2 system you need three good (or better) central midfielders. At the moment, it’s hard to name one that Manchester United have that’s trustworthy and consistent in both providing offensive creativity, defensive assignments or spreading out to cover the wings. Michael Carrick might be injured again, but he’s not been playing well since the first injury he’s come back from this season. Anderson is gone, while Darren Fletcher isn’t anything more than OK, Tom Cleverley manages to keep moving from disappointment to approving and Marouane Fellaini has been one huge flop so far when he’s actually healthy.
The lack of balance in the squad for such an attempt is another issue -This is a team of wingers: Antonio Valencia, Nani (signed on a four-year deal and then disappeared), Adnan Januzaj. Januzaj particularly makes an interesting case: If he’s the next big star of Manchester United, there’s no sense in suddenly changing into a system without wingers. And if Januzaj is to be groomed as an attacking midfielder, what are his chances of playing if Mata, the team’s most expensive signing ever, is in line for the same spot?
Maybe it’s not about systems and positions (although that should be taking into consideration), but simply improving the quality of the squad that lacks quality and creativity. Maybe it’s about making a point: Manchester United can still bring in big names, spend big money, and take it from a rival.
The rival is also interesting here: Chelsea sold their best player of the past two years to a direct rival, even though Manchester United aren’t posing any threat this season. Surely Mata under Mourinho isn’t the best example of what this player can. Chelsea aren’t playing Manchester United this season again so they have time to actually worry about revenge, but they had options (for less money) to sell him abroad. But they chose Manchester United, because Mourinho is confident enough he doesn’t need Mata, and is confident enough that such a chance isn’t going to make Manchester United strong enough to suddenly pose a threat.