Juan Mata, Manchester United and wingers

Ryan Giggs
Ryan Giggs was instrumental to Manchester United’s success in the 90s as a winger

Author: Karate Jesus

Follow Karate Jesus on Twitter – @KarateJesus82

‘The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one.’

Albert Einstein

There’s been a common sentiment, nay, obsession, shared by practically all United fans over the last five years; sort out central midfield. It’s been easy to lose count of the names put forward as the player to revolutionise United’s engine room and, ultimately, the whole side. Some would undoubtedly have improved the side, others have reeked of ignorant desperation.

This common ‘the centre is weak; fix that, fix United’ diagnosis has led to some practically comatose analysis by United fans when it comes to assessing which players should be brought into the club. In the summer of 2012, there shouldn’t have been any supporters feeling anything other than joy at the signing of Robin van Persie. Instead, it wasn’t uncommon to hear people grumble that ‘we have Hernandez, we’d be better off spending that on Yann M’Vila or Chiek Tiote’.

Fast-forward eighteen months and I’ve heard similar murmurings about Juan Mata’s arrival. ‘We don’t need a player like that, we just need to play Kagawa in his natural position’ (Hello, Mr Blindspot), ‘I’m not sure if he’s a typical United player’ (Nev, I’m looking at you, and I’ll come on to this in greater detail) or ‘We should have spent £25m on Yohan Cabaye instead of near £40m on Mata’ (I mean, really? Dear me.).

I find it all slightly strange as, whilst we do need one more central midfielder (and this should be a Vidal or a Gundogan, not a Cabaye or a, FFS, Tiote), United have had an equally big problem in attacking areas. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the supply of strikers, although if any club comes in with £12m+ for Hernandez this summer, it would be in the interest of everyone (especially, Angelo Henriquez and Will Keane) for him to leave.

The people I’m referring to are Valencia, Young and Nani – the senior wingmen. Three players at their peak but, for varying reasons, failing in their efforts to pin down a first team place. All are far better than their biggest detractors could contemplate recognising and any of the three could easily be successful in a squad role if they were back up and other, better talents, were ahead of them.

Valencia may have one leg and resemble a drowning man if he leaves the right touchline, but he has improved on last season (when he was dreadful) and with greater confidence could still play a role.

Young may wear shirts far too big for him and resemble a deep sea diver when he runs at defenders, but he can play across the front, can do a job defensively and, with greater confidence could still play a role.

Nani may look like Michael Jackson and resemble the kind of kid who everybody hated at school for being a snidy little grass, but he’s actually a very good player and, with any degree of consistency, would play a valuable role.

Ultimately, it’s not about ifs and buts, it’s about their actual contributions. In terms of goals scored, the trio have clocked up 136 appearances over the last season and a half and have a combined goals tally of 11. As a convenient example, Juan Mata made a total of 135 appearances for Chelsea and scored 33 goals. This figure includes just 1 goal in the 17 games that he featured for Jose Mourinho this season; a season where he has been marginalised.

Scoring goals isn’t everything but the three have also seen their overall play regress in recent seasons, either through a crisis of confidence, or injuries, or both. Ultimately, the performances of all three, for one reason or another, has not been good enough for that required of attackers at a club like United, and the fact that Young and Valencia will be 29 in the summer and Nani, 28, next November, compounds the situation.

Given the above, it would seem likely that at least one of the three will definitely leave by the start of next season, with a high possibility that two could go and, possibly, even all three. Personally, given the calibre of players that Moyes is rumoured to be trying to bring in, this would be a positive move. In addition, it would give the likes of Jessie Lingard an opportunity to take a place in the first team squad. If one of the three does stay then they will need to show the manager that they are ready to fight for a place in the squad between now and the end of the season; there will be no guarantees.

With regard to bringing in new attacking midfielders / players to play off the flanks, the signing of Juan Mata was queried to some extent by Gary Neville, amongst others, who suggested that Mata wasn’t a typical United player; i.e. that United tend to go for fast, strong players who can inject width into our game and put crosses in the box. It would be a reasonable reaction for most people to listen to that argument and, whilst possibly disagreeing on Mata’s ability to be incorporated into the team, accept that Neville may have a point regarding how United set up to play.

On deeper reflection, however, I’d put forward an argument that United haven’t had great success with authentic wingers for over a decade. Beckham and Giggs are the last true pair of wingers that we played as a pair.

People may point out that United won the league in 2006-2007 with Ronaldo and Giggs on the wings but the formation that season predominantly saw an interchanging three of the aforementioned two plus Rooney, behind Louis Saha. It certainly wasn’t the rigid formation of, say, Beckham – Keane – Scholes – Giggs.

Certainly by 2007-2008, United had shifted into a 4-3-3 with someone like Hargreaves, especially in big games, often playing wide right so that a front three of Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney could be fielded. As Ronaldo developed into a player who could score for fun, the likes of Rooney would be used as an inside-forward who could double up as a defensive winger. It certainly wasn’t a standard 4-4-2.

In recent seasons, Rooney has often continued to play this role and Welbeck was certainly used frequently in this kind of position by Ferguson. This season, Januzaj has emerged as a United player who can play on one of the flanks of a three behind a striker and has been far more successful than any of the other more traditional wingers that have played.

My point is that the belief that United play 4-4-2 with two quick widemen putting crosses into the box is, in part, a myth. In fact, wingers are practically redundant across the big clubs in Europe today, with Bayern Munich the possible exception due to the quality of Robben and Ribery.

It is far more common to see two attackers tucked in from the flanks and utilise full backs who are far quicker and creative than fullbacks a generation ago to overlap them and make use of unoccupied space. Given United have fullbacks who are adept at pushing forward, it makes far greater sense to have creative, intelligent players such as Mata, Januzaj or Kagawa (if he stays), or even Rooney and Welbeck, in the ‘wide’ positions of the three behind Van Persie, rather than have authentic wingers who are struggling for either quality or consistency.

A throwaway line from David Moyes in the last few days underlined the situation nicely; Mata can be used ‘off the left or off the right’. Note, this is ‘off’ rather than ‘on’ – tucked in rather than hugging the touchline. It’s the right approach.

A player who should be able to fit into that kind of system and who, on the whole, has largely disappointed, is Shinji Kagawa. Those who blame Kagawa’s ineffectiveness on the fact he is often asked to play from the left are over-compensating for his inability to produce his best at the club. He is passive too often and time is running out for him to show the mental strength required to succeed at United.

Kagawa’s struggles have been cast in poor light by Januzaj’s good form and, in time I’m sure, will be underlined by Mata as well. Neither Januzaj nor Mata are authentic wide forwards, with both probably identifying themselves as a genuine number 10, however both can contribute when playing as part of three behind the striker.

In addition, the three behind a striker will interchange far more than people sometimes realise and this further reveals Kagawa has to improve if he is to have a future at the club. A good example of this came recently during the 2-0 home win against Swansea; many mentioned that Kagawa excelled after half-time when Moyes switched him and Januzaj. In reality, Januzaj and Kagawa switched after 30 minutes and the improved performance, of all players, came once the team had had the confidence boost of a goal straight after half time.

Given all of the above, the signing of Mata will hopefully be supplemented by the signing of a player equally talented (such as Marco Reus) so that United can call upon an array of players embedded with creativity, speed of thought, confidence and courage.

At the same time, hopefully the club will bring in the figurehead they need in the middle; a Bryan Robson or Roy Keane influence; a winner. This will give the attack the platform they require and rectify two areas that have experienced increasing malfunction.

As Einstein suggested, Mata’s arrival hasn’t created a problem, he has just made the need to fix an existing problem more apparent. I may be paraphrasing but the point stands and, after all, Einstein was a bloody genius.

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4 Responses to “Juan Mata, Manchester United and wingers”

  1. Scott says:

    A simply fantastic article! Clear, thoughtful and well-reasoned. I can’t disagree with anything. I especially agree with the assessment of Kagawa at United – he simply hasn’t played good enough over 1 and a half seasons, regardless of how the team has been set up / where he has been positioned. Looking forward to the Stoke game!

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  2. Tom says:

    A great article and its good to see people realise that we need to move away from traditional wingers. The last 2 seasons have been poor from our wide players. Nani has been invisible, Young is inconsistent and dives too much, and Valencia has lost a yard of pace and does the same low cross which never beats the first defender. In my opinion we need to sell all three of them in the summer.

    We need to move towards more intelligent playmakers that are capable of interchanging and playing quick silky football. If we are being honest the football at Old Trafford has been poor and boring since Ronaldo left in 2009. It’s been down to the type of players that have come in since then. I mean Valencia and Owen was never going to bring the magic we had with Ronaldo. We created a team that just worked hard and grinded out results. There was no magic and incredible football, like we saw when we had Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez in the same team.

    Mata was an important signing because it represents a change of philosophy and hopefully moves us back towards playing better and more exciting football. We 100% need a new central midfielder, probably 2 will be required in the summer. We also need a new left back to help this new style function effectively, as the full backs will need to attack and provide the width. The formation going forward needs to be 4-2-3-1.

    We have Rooney playing in the deep lying number 10 role and we should then use Mata on the left. I know people will say that he tended to play on the right for Chelsea, but his first season was on the left and if you watched him at Valencia he functioned on the left attacking side. I think we should make a big move for Marco Reus because he is a fantastic and exciting player that would fit in perfectly. Mata is intelligent and has craft, whereas Reus is more explosive and direct but also with the intelligence.

    We need top quality central midfielder’s and I hope we sign Arturo Vidal because he would be perfect for Man Utd. Toni Kroos would be fantastic but I feel he will sign a new deal with Bayern, so the other best option would be Ilkay Gundogan. I think Moyes was correct not pushing for him in January because he has had an injury. We need to see him return and have a run in the Dortmund team. We saw with Hargreaves how badly these things can turn out so need to see how Gundogan returns.

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  3. BT says:

    Very sensible article, although you gloss over DM’s repeated attempts this season to play 4-2-4 formations against teams with 3 central midfielders. Hopefully he is preparing to stop doing this. But the reason for writing is this: why do you say “we do need one more central midfielder”. Surely we need four or five good central midfielders so that three can always play? I would argue that we have 0 at the moment. Carrick is least poor, then Fletcher. Who else even merits listing?

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  4. Ryan says:

    Very sensible and thoughtful article, and I thoroughly reading it. One thing though, why do you say that Cabaye is not what we need? A goal-scoring (true) central midfielder (rather than a AM pigeonholed at CM like Anderson), successful in turning possession over to Newcastle in the opponent’s half, proven in the EPL. I’d say I would prefer Vidal to Cabaye, but Cabaye to Tiote.

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