Football: Mata can't make it at United

Football: Mata can't make it at United
Juan Mata, Manchester United

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, Jose Mourinho doesn't sell players he would rather keep.

Juan Mata was too slow for the style of play the manager intended to impose on his rapidly evolving Chelsea side.

The Spanish midfielder had an unerring passing range and owned an impressive box of tricks bigger than some of the players currently on the Blues' books.

Like Joe Cole in Mourinho's previous Chelsea era, Mata was blessed with the most sublime football gifts, but not the ones the manager was looking for.

It's never personal with Mourinho. It's strictly the business of winning.

His former mentor now finds himself in a similar position. Louis van Gaal has inherited a £37.1 million (S$76.2 million) football talent - who also happens to be a fifth-choice attacker behind Manchester United's fantastic four.

With Wayne Rooney suspended, Mata had a gilt-edged opportunity to justify his long-term selection in front of a sceptical manager.

Like Mata around the penalty box of late, the chance went begging.

With the certainty of James Bond at the end of every movie, Rooney will return. Mata will almost certainly slink back to the sidelines, reduced once again to soul-sapping cameos.

TWIST OF FATE

In a cruel twist of fate lost on no one, the Spaniard must have felt he was back at his old club, when facing his old club. Groundhog Day is becoming every day for the midfielder.

He's the right player at the wrong club. His skill set doesn't fit van Gaal's system any more than it did at Chelsea.

The Dutch manager may have a greater sense of adventure, compared to Mourinho, and prefers lightning raids instead of wars of attrition. But above all else, van Gaal is a ruthless pragmatist (recall how he dropped his three-man defence when it plainly wasn't working).

Against Chelsea, he altered the formation to close gaps on the flanks, deployed man-markers and ordered his wide men to back track whenever necessary.

For United, the subtle tactical shift worked. Chelsea's attacking trio and Cesc Fabregas were mostly restrained.

For Mata, the changes must have been insufferable.

The 26-year-old isn't blessed with the pace to retreat as quickly as either Angel Di Maria or Adnan Januzaj. Man-marking is beyond him and, in terms of formation, diamonds are Mata's best friend.

A superb distributor, he operates most effectively when the game passes through him when he's at the top of a diamond, or even in the hole. When the game is played around him, it passes him by.

Of the four forward players strung out behind Robin van Persie at the weekend, Mata contributed the least. He just couldn't match their physical endeavour.

Watching such a master craftsman labour in vain was a sad sight, like a once popular magician being overshadowed by a brawny strongman routine.

Even if van Gaal opts for his preferred diamond in midfield and sends out a more swashbuckling formation against lesser sides, Mata may still take the fall.

The United manager isn't swayed by name or reputation, but there's little doubt that Di Maria, Rooney, Radamel Falcao and perhaps even van Persie all start when fit and available.

At best, that leaves one available position out wide and van Gaal appears to prefer Januzaj's pace and Ander Herrera's workrate to Mata's peerless, but sometimes pedestrian, passing ability.

Antonio Valencia is also faster and capable of reinforcing that unstable defence. And Marouane Fellaini's sudden decision to do a decent impression of that belligerent Belgian bruiser who used to dominate Everton's midfield only further muddies the waters.

Fundamentally, van Gaal's teams are built on counter-attacking speed. When he looks in Mata's locker, he knows the Spaniard has the pass. But he doesn't have the pace.

Inconsistency will also concern the studious Dutchman. Mata's eight goals for United were scored against also-rans and relegation candidates (Queens Park Rangers, Sunderland, Southampton, Norwich City, Newcastle United and Aston Villa.)

He hasn't found his form against the big four. He hasn't found the net against any side bigger than Southampton.

When the chance came to fix that failing last Sunday, the mercurial midfielder went AWOL. Rooney's suspension granted him a blank canvas, but Mata could only manage a few distracting doodles.

The Chelsea game painted a portrait of a frustrated artist.

And van Gaal won't buy it.

npsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Oct 29, 2014.
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