Can Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie play together?

Juan Mata
Juan Mata is yet to score for Manchester United following his move from Chelsea

Guest Author: Doron Salomon

As the season continues to turn darker and become increasingly memorable for the wrong reasons, United are going to have to score, and score big if there’s to be anything left to salvage. Putting the ball in the net has been one of the fundamental problems and whilst fans are keen to point the finger at the manager or specific players, this is a shared concern that looks set to continue.

The creators

The arrival of Juan Mata looks increasingly like a short term hindrance rather than the kick-start everyone hoped he might be. There are doubts as to whether he was genuinely wanted to fit into the team or whether this was a case of an outstanding player being available and it being a chance to flex some financial muscle and make a statement. Either way, like Kagawa before him, to see such a brilliant footballer in such an ineffective role is disheartening. At the moment, in wide areas, he’s not the best option and until he can move inside (a Rooney/van Persie injury) that’ll remain the case.

The ‘clipping of the wings’ hasn’t really worked. It’s fine against Crystal Palace and West Brom because United should, regardless of the system, have too much quality for them, but against Liverpool it was found out. There’s no pace out wide, no penetration. Everything is slow, even the build up to the Rooney goal at West Brom was at a trot rather than a canter. Moyes is faced with a dilemma because the classic wingers have, on the whole, quite literally failed to deliver. It’s been a very easy excuse for people to proclaim United have crossed too much this season but that’s only been used because there’s been no end product. In seasons gone by crossing has been a vital component to how goals have been scored, alongside counter attacks.

Which personnel should take up the positions out wide is a mystery. Not a single player is in form. The two best individuals, Mata and Januzaj are struggling with the latter increasingly on the periphery of games (less than 25 touches regularly now) and losing his unknown/unpredictable tag fast whilst Mata is seeing a lot of the ball but struggling to use it effectively given the lack of movement in the side. Nani’s return from injury may end up being timely and Kagawa will be due a chance again soon – he can’t do any worse than the others right now. Valencia’s played himself to within a foot of the exit door whilst Young’s maybe actually the hardest to fault in terms of current form, he’s at least shown some fight. Elsewhere, Zaha was let go on loan to Cardiff and is struggling to break into their team (a big kick in the nuts to United fans who thought he was already good enough to start for us).

If there was a short term solution then it’s not an obvious one. Wide players has been tried, no wide players has been tried. All that’s left is to change the system altogether and have one striker with Mata as a number 10 with free reign but that, as the next section shall discuss, looks unlikely.


As noted, the service has not been good enough. From out wide against Liverpool there was the odd Rafael cross but otherwise it was a few probing passes to feet by Carrick that Rooney and van Persie had to work with. Their pairing has never seemed settled. Only a few times did they click last season but because of the volume of goals scored and the silverware won, no one was really that bothered by it. This time around and it’s a problem.

From the outside, no one has a clue whether van Persie is happy. We get 90 minutes once, maybe twice a week to make a decision on his mood and frame of mind. Likewise, we have no idea if the training is too intense. We can speculate to fit narratives and make assumptions that help ourselves sleep that bit easier but until someone on the inside comes out and says something assertively it is mere speculation. However, judging by what happens on the pitch, van Persie stinks right now. His decision making has been poor, his movement non-existent and bar the odd ‘big tackle’ his commitment to helping the team is lacking. Maybe he’s been told to play a static role, be a presence high up and not drop in but if that’s the case it clearly doesn’t play to his strengths. He’s not a last man, runs off the shoulder player, at least not anymore. It was against a tiring West Brom who were pushing up to pull a goal back but Welbeck’s introduction was a telling one. Space opened up with his runs and his energy suddenly added impetus.

In fact, Danny Welbeck has been one of the rare beacons of comfort in this season. As his fictional character grows on social networks he’s delivered moments on the pitch. The spell he had in the side at the end of 2013 was a sign that he can cut-it as a striker and although his long legs may still buckle at times, he’s a threat to teams because of his running and physical presence. He should have been a starter against Liverpool, at worst he had to be introduced to the game much earlier than he was. But ahead of him are two players (along with Mata) who are seemingly undroppable regardless of form. Rooney may have committed himself to United (or the money) but his season continues to amble on with few telling moments and lots of average ones. Hernandez may have been an interesting proposition with his runs actually giving Mata something to try and pick out but he has as much chance playing whilst currently injured than he did before. If Moyes feels brave, which is unlikely, then James Wilson’s debut may be edging ever closer.

The numbers

Here are some alarming numbers that only serve to emphasise the lack of goalmouth action, domination, creativity and forward thinking so far this season:

  • There have been 21 games at home in the Premier League and Champions League this season. In those games, only Rooney (25) and van Persie (11) have had more than 5 (yes, FIVE) shots on target.
  • In 36 league and European games our midfielders have contributed just 49 shots on target and 9 goals. In those games only one midfielder (Januzaj) has had more shots on target than Evra and Jones.
  • In those 36 games, United average just over 4 (FOUR!) shots on target per game.
  • Danny Welbeck has the best conversion rate (23.7% shots scored) in the squad.
  • Only 6 players in the squad average at least one shot per half (and that includes Zaha).
  • Of the midfielders to attempt more than 300 passes, only Carrick plays more than 50% forwards and less than 20% backwards.
  • Only 4 midfielders or strikers attempt more than 40 passes per game.

In conclusion

It looks increasingly impossible to find a way of playing with all three of Mata, Rooney and van Persie that isn’t going to make us look impotent. In the short term, Mata’s signing has only made it harder to play with any clear style or structure but in the long term he may still flourish if the system is changed and probably if one of Rooney or van Persie leaves. Moyes needs to take a firm stance and make some tough decisions, as Tony Barrett of The Times said on Twitter earlier:

“Moyes looks like a manager stuck in no man’s land between his own preferred methods & the football principles of his club. Had Moyes been anywhere but United he would’ve pushed Fellaini up & gone long at 2-0 down. He knows that’s not the United way though.”

He’s not wrong. With the expectation of ‘The United Way’ and ‘football taught by Matt Busby’ he needs to find a way of scoring goals and scoring them in bucket loads. Until that method is found, winning games will continue to be a struggle. The last month has served as a reminder that the best individuals thrown together don’t always make for the best football or the best team.

Edit – Quotes from Gary Neville on 19/3 before the Olympiakos game:

“On Sunday he’s got Mata, Januzaj, van Persie and Rooney – upset a couple of them, leave them out, play players who are going to win you the games. Don’t worry about reputations, actually get to a point where you think I can’t play all these four in one team, I’m going to leave two of them out and actually try and win the game. The best players don’t make the best teams.”

7 Comments on Can Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie play together?

  1. Why not try a 4-4-2 diamond? Standard back 4, Fellaini just infront of the defence, Carrick and Cleverly as a pair in midfield, with Mata just tucked infront of them and behind Rooney and RVP. No wingers, but with Fellaini holding the full backs can get forward.

  2. Moyes is tactless and clueless.Just look at Liverpool.Suarez plays the in and out striker just like Rooney and he’s doing good with Coutihno behind him.Gerrad(carrick),Herderson(Fellaine) and Coutihno(Mata) plays in the Midfield while Suarez(Rooney),Sturridge(Van Persie) and sterling(Januzaj) plays upfront.The liverpool formation is ticking,why not United? When you want to play wide,remove Mata/Rooney and put Valencia/Young/Nani for fast attack which should have been the case on Sunday.Poor Moyes,please resign for the good of Manchester United.

  3. Its awful watching Kagawa and Mata wasting their talents on the wings. Its like watching a boxer trying to fight with one arm and it leaves the defence exposed down whichever wing they are stuck on. Two number 10’s was frustrating enough with Rooney and Kagawa; but three?

    I think the problem lies with Rooney, IMO, he isn’t an out and out striker despite his goals record. He is an instinctive player and needs to be able to roam, but he gets in the way of other players at times.

    Its still early days, so hopefully DM can find a style and blend that works but I can’t see how RVP, Rooney and Mata/Kagawa can play together.

  4. How many voters answered “yes” to the poll on the assumption that playing together would require a change in formation (say, 4-2-3-1)? I mean, the results of the experiment are already available for a 4-4-2 and the answer is “no”.

  5. Personally I would like to see this (even though I know it won’t happen): –

    I would mirror the Guardiola approach. A system he used very successfully at Barcelona.

    Keeper – De Gea.
    Back four. Defensive line fairly high so quick cb’s needed (prob Jones & Smalling) Rafael & Evra full backs.
    Michael Carrick holding midfielder
    2 playmakers in front of Carrick forming a triangle – Mata & Kagawa
    3 forwards high up the pitch – Welbeck on the left, Rooney on the right & van Persie in the middle.

    This set-up would require a new manager cos Moyes would never try this!

  6. My 2p-worth….play Mata behind a fluid and aggresive front 3, picked from a combo of RVP, Rooney, Welbeck, Januzaj and, next season, Zaha. Mata, backed up by Kagawa and occasionally Adnan or Powell, can focus on playmaking, if backed up by two solid DM/CMs and the forwards and the fullbacks can still provide plenty of width if the team focus on playing with the gusto of the other night.

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