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Juan Mata’s debut provides hope, leaves questions unanswered for Manchester United

Jan 28, 2014, 5:50 PM EDT

Mata showed glimpses of what's to come in a United shirt, after a steady debut AP

Had Manchester United kept their $61 million and left Juan Mata on Chelsea’s bench, today’s match against Cardiff may have played out the same way. At least, 2-0 sounds about right. You had the Premier League’s seventh placed team hosting its bottom dwellers, with one of the league’s best goal scorers returning to the home team’s lineup. A two-goal victory is par for the course in these situations.

Mata still made an impression, though. As a focal point above midfield, he provided a level of composure we’re not used to seeing from a Red Devils playmaker. We’re used to the energy of Wayne Rooney, who has excelled this season in that role. Lately, we’re used to the potential of Adnan Januzaj – talent that hints he mat yet be better as a wide-to-in player. With Mata, however, the Red Devils have a number 10 with the patience to let a play develop, something that should mesh well with Rooney’s bombast and Robin Van Persie‘s movement.

That patience was evident mid-way through the first half, when the Spanish international pulled up along the right flank and let his runners fly into the box. Moments later, he found Ashley Young attacking the far post for a should-have-been goal.

To a lesser extent, that patience was also evident on his team’s first goal, with Mata electing to chip a ball wide left rather than force something through on the right. Patrice Evra and Ashley Young eventually created the goal Van Persie would score, with Mata having flooded the box to help overwhelm United’s opposition.

Expect to hear the phrase “foot on the ball” a lot over the next few days, because that’s exactly the impression Mata gave. With his acquisition, United finally have a guy who can control plays as well as make them – somebody who can take advantage of the movement he’ll get from his two star forwards.

We knew this about Mata when he arrived, but after half a season languishing at Chelsea, it was nice be reminded. It was refreshing to have somebody so important to the last two years of Premier League soccer back on the field. He didn’t get shipped back to Spain. He didn’t stay packed away in the Chelsea dressing room. The same guy who posted 30 assists over the last two league seasons has been saved – by Manchester United, no less.

Red Devils’ supporters have to be fired up. This is the high point of their season. After five months of middling results and fight amongst themselves about whether David Moyes is okay, bad, or horrible, there’s now another focus. Maybe there’ll be no title race this year, but the team’s Champions League hopes are still alive. And promising to play a more creative brand of soccer than has been offered since May, United may yet again be fun to watch. It wasn’t quite there on Tuesday, but the promise was.

source: AP

Mata’s 52 passes led Manchester United on Tuesday, his four “key passes” (Opta) tying for the team lead in the Red Devils’ 2-0 victory over Cardiff. (Source: AP.)

That promise is dependent on Mata playing well with both Van Persie and Rooney, something we didn’t get a chance to see against Cardiff. Van Persie started, Rooney relieved him, leaving Mata without an opportunity to provide for both scorers at once. That big reveal still awaits, leaving Manchester United with some important unanswered questions.

The way the Red Devils set up today, it was still unclear how they’ll deploy Mata with Van Persie and Rooney. On Tuesday, they played with two forwards – Mata playing behind Van Persie. With a setup not dissimilar to what United’s used all season, Moyes provided a small hint he may not change the formation for Mata’s arrival. After all, he hasn’t changed his approach much since moving from Liverpool to Stretford.

It’s a small hint, one that we shouldn’t read much into, but as NBC Sports analyst Kyle Martino said before the game, there’s a chance Mata ends up wide, playing the position he excelled in before arriving in the Premier League. If that happens — if Moyes does try to make Mata bend to him, rather than adapting to his talent — questions about United’s new manager will grow.

That’s not to say the set up can’t work. Right now, it’s one of a number of ways to get United’s three stars in the same lineup, but until that happens, Mata’s promise will be balanced against unanswered questions about how his new team will ultimately use him.

  1. jcsprenger - Jan 29, 2014 at 10:15 AM

    “talent that hints he made yet be better” Mr. Farley, you write very well, so why mess it up with a lack of proofreading? The above phrase should say “he may yet be better”. This is the second time you cause confusion (that I am aware of). I like to read your excellent reporting, but if you need a good proofreader, let me know, that’s my specialty.

    • Richard Farley - Jan 29, 2014 at 11:53 AM

      Thank you for pointing that out.

  2. mafemani - Jan 29, 2014 at 11:48 AM

    Mata was an opportunity hard to passby, but I do acknowledge we had a more pressing issue. We need a central midfielder. Carrick is getting old and injuries are hurting us with him. Jones and Cleverly are no fit. We need a complete overall. While Evra was brilliant, he is beginning to lose shape. Cardiff caught him inside a lot of times and I have notices that about him a few times. We have been vulnerable on the left because of that. The problem is, if Mata is to play on the wing, then he would need to be on the left as Adna is operating on the right hand side. Its hard to see us using Adna, Mata, Rooney, and RVP at once. Its a sad reality. As long as clubs dominate posession as much as the little ones like Sunderland and Cardiff did, we cant make it. We need to improve ball retention. We have Rooney, Mata, and Kagawa vying for the same position. These are brilliant players, but cant be kept on the same team. Kagawa is inconsistent, although I blame it on his managers who keep on moving him to positions he is not accustomed to. That makes it hard for him to consistently show his qualities at number 10.

  3. godsholytrousers - Jan 30, 2014 at 2:43 PM

    Mata is a magic man, if only the rest of the Red Devils had his ability.

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