juan mata

How do you solve a problem like Di Maria?

First off, let me stress that the imminent signing of Real Madrid’s Angel di Maria by Manchester United is not a problem; this headline was just too tempting not to go with.

And B), the idea of this piece is to discuss the many ways that Louis van Gaal may look to fit the world class Argentine into his until now beleaguered and win-less United side.

The argument amongst football fans, of the Manchester United inclined mostly, has been how does this winger fit into a formation that doesn’t use proper wingers? We’re talking about van Gaal’s 3-5-2 formation here, the one that utilises two wing-backs, two central midfielders, and then a ‘number 10’ behind two main strikers. 

Therein lies the first problem, and it’s nothing to do with where di Maria fits in, it’s that most people don’t realise that di Maria’s best season at Real Madrid (last season) saw him play in central midfield beside Luka Modric and Xabi Alonso. Not unlike when Alex Ferguson shifted Ryan Giggs into central midfield after Paul Scholes’ career was threatened through an eye injury, Carlo Ancelotti moved Angel di Maria central and gave Real a lot more vigour and pace in central areas. This of course was Ancelotti’s answer to accommodating three wingers into the side in Ronaldo, di Maria and new signing Gareth Bale.

While Giggs ‘did a job’ for United there when necessary, di Maria made the position his own and was arguably Real Madrid’s second best player behind Cristiano Ronaldo in the last two seasons, and certainly last season. In the Champions League Final in Lisbon in May, when Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema didn’t show up, it was di Maria that took the game by the scruff of the neck, causing panic in the Atléti defence.

‘Versatility’ can be a dirty word in football these days, but di Maria’s Real tenure showed that the player didn’t just “do a job” in each position he occupied, á la an ageing Ryan Giggs, but he showed he was world class in each position, whether it be on the right wing, from the left, playing off the striker or playing deeper in a central midfield role.

At Manchester United, he will absolutely be occupying these same positions whenever necessary. 

Louis van Gaal, while utilising this 3-5-2 formation since the beginning of the World Cup, has always favoured 4-3-3 whenever he has the personnel at his disposal. At United, having so many capable strikers and few top class wingers, he has started the season with the former formation, though, as he suggested a month ago, he would use the latter formation should he have “a world class winger like Ronaldo or di Maria”.

Will he start di Maria wide right, with promising youngster and heir to Ryan Giggs’ iconic number 11 shirt, Adnan Januzaj, playing wide left? This would seem a very sensible option, but then what about the problem or picking Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie? Surely van Gaal must play both? Rooney, the player dividing opinion most amongst United fans, is now the club captain and dropping him would seem a surprising decision. Dropping van Persie? Not a chance. Not only is the flying Dutchman LVG’s pet but he’s Manchester United’s only true world class player, at least he was before Angel di Maria signed.

If a 4-3-3 is to be utilised, I can see van Gaal trying to use Wayne Rooney in a deep-lying attacking midfielder role just ahead of Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick or Darren Fletcher (assuming United don’t sign up Arturo Vidal or Nigel de Jong late in the window). But what about Juan Mata? Mata can’t be played on the wing, and can’t be played in a deep midfield role as some have suggested. His only position, unless his immense talents are to be wasted is behind the striker or ‘in the hole’, where Rooney could play also. It will end up being one or the other in terms of either Rooney or van Persie, or Rooney or Mata, should LVG decided to go 4-3-3.

formation

Possible 4-3-3 formation?

If van Gaal decides to stick with 3-5-2, and it’s highly likely given current personnel, especially in defensive positions, then I would think it comes down to di Maria and Mata vying for that key central position. Again, neither can play in the base two central midfield roles, and while di Maria played deeper at times for Real Madrid, he did so with two other world class central midfielders never far away to cover him. 

The ‘5’ in the 3-5-2 would most likely, at least in my mind, be Antonio Valencia, Ander Herrera, Darren Fletcher, Angel di Maria and Luke Shaw, with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie up front. Di Maria could also be utilised up front beside a front man in this formation, the way in which Arjen Robben did so effectively for Holland during the World Cup. 

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Possible 3-5-2 formation with everyone fit.

And let’s be honest, the likelihood of Manchester United having the luxury of picking from Angel di Maria, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Adnan Januzaj all at once on a regular basis is slim. Before Sunday’s draw at Sunderland for instance, you had to go back to March for the last time Rooney and van Persie last started a game together. Just look at Manchester City’s current attacking options in Aguero, Jovetic, Negredo and Dzeko up front. It’s rare that they are always fit at the same time, but whenever City line up, they always look a threat because they have top class players replacing top class players. 

What happens often with van Gaal’s teams is he will freely change formations when one isn’t working and a player like di Maria is perfect for this. He can seamlessly switch from playing wide in a 4-3-3 to playing more centrally and being more of a creative influence in the 3-5-2 formation. You see, there is no problem. United need pace in attack. Badly. Januzaj is very good, but they need world class ability. Juan Mata is top class and keeps play moving but while his passing is quick his movement isn’t. Wayne Rooney rarely runs past people any more. The last player United had that could ‘make things happen’ like di Maria can was Cristiano Ronaldo. 

So as I said, there’s no “problem” here with the di Maria signing. He’s a player United need and simply could not afford to pass up, despite the British record transfer fee of £59.6 million (around €75 million). United certainly need more, especially in the centre of midfield, and that position may yet be filled with the rumoured arrival of Arturo Vidal, but for now, it’s okay to get excited. 

Juan Mata Progress Report

After Juan Mata’s much publicised transfer from Chelsea to Manchester United in January for a club record £37.1 million, a high percentage of the spotlight has been put on the little Spaniard and how he will fit into David Moyes’ struggling United side.

The debut – Mata is hailed by the home crowd

Making his debut against Cardiff in a comfortable 2-0 victory, starting behind returning front man Robin van Persie in attack, it looked as if the two-time Chelsea ‘Player of the Season’ had taken little time to blend in, having a big involvement in both Ashley Young and Robin van Persie’s goals. The performance overall was poor though, and Mata was overall quite effective. The next step was seeing how well he’d gel with Wayne Rooney coming back into the side.

Back to reality…

Against Stoke City the following week at the Britannia Stadium, Mata started from the left, with Rooney playing in his usual position behind RVP. After Stoke took the lead through a fortuitous Michael Carrick own goal, Mata’s wizardry shone through as he slid a beautiful through ball into the path of van Persie, who duly obliged to score his second Mata-assisted goal in two games. You would have probably expected United to push on from here and win the game but alas, everybody’s least favourite Scotsman since Barry Ferguson popped up with an absolute cracking strike from 30 yards to give Stoke the 2-1 win. One win, one defeat, two Mata assists.

Can United cross? They always cross..

The next game was expected to be a routine home victory against bottom of the table Fulham, thought nothing about Manchester United this season has been routine. Once again fielding the trio of Mata, Rooney and van Persie, with Ashley Young playing wide left, David Moyes’ side, despite struggling all season were surely going to easily dispatch of relegation-threatened Fulham, right? Wrong. It was one of the most abject and confusing performances under Moyes’ reign. Utilising “conference tactics” according to one Fulham defender, United set a record for crosses into the box with 81 attempts. Disheartening. In the first half Fulham even took the lead through a breakaway move when Rooney and Fletcher lost Steve Sidwell who charged through the midfield to sent the ball past David De Gea. It wasn’t until the 78th minute that United equalised through Robin van Persie, before Michael Carrick’s deflected effort put the defending champions ahead 80 seconds later. Fulham weren’t going to go away though. Though they defended for their lives, they were always a danger on the counterattack, breaking United hearts in stoppage when Darren Bent nodded in from close range to make it 2-2. As for Mata’s contribution, it was hard to judge. The gameplan seemed to be to get the ball, and pass out wide to either Young, Rafael or Evra. Mata found pockets of space, but the imaginations wasn’t there. As many observers joked, “Giving David Moyes Juan Mata is like giving your grandad a smartphone”.

Was the Arsenal v United game called off too?

It was a match that scant United fans would have been optimistic about. Playing against perennial table toppers Arsenal in the own back garden is a daunting task for any team in the Barclay’s Premier League. The Gunners were coming off a 5-1 humbling against a rampant Liverpool side at Anfield. United were coming off an embarrassing draw against the worst team in the league. Both needed a win. Surely this would be one to remember? It was not to be. While United had the better of the chances, two missed sitters from the generally reliable RVP, Arsenal were more blunt in attack than they’d been all season. United defended stoutly, afraid to bring the ball out from defence too often. It was also one of Mata’s poorer performances, struggling to get anything going with an out of sorts Wayne Rooney. He tried but it just seemed like once again he wasn’t sure what his job was. The game ended nil all, in a match that both teams were so clearly happy to end. Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger even went as far as to admit that Arsenal were “nervous”. Against THIS United side? Strange one.

Overall rating so far: 6.5/10

Stuff happening today…

Justin Bieber arrested for being a complete idiot

That little a**hole Justin Bieber is once again in the spotlight, this time being arrested for drinking under the influence and drag-racing along Miami Beach. Chalk that one off as one of his more impressive acts of idiocy.

He’s currently being detained, with droves of paparazzi awaiting him outside because they live hollow lives. He’s expected to serve a maximum of one night in prison, two weeks in rehab and another few weeks splashed all over the tabloids.

Juan Mata’s move to Old Trafford imminent as heli-pad is readied at Carrington

In one of the more shocking transfers in recent years, two-time Chelsea ‘player of the year’ Juan Mata looks set to complete his £40M transfer to David Moyes’ struggling Manchester United side.

The move is expected to be completed today, with Mata expected to fly into United’s Carrington training facility via helicopter to complete his medical. It has been widely reported that Mata was gagged and blind-folded for the entire of last night as United embarrassingly lost to Sunderland on penalties in the League Cup semi-final, lest he be deterred from signing for a team that are a lot worse than he feared.

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