Sunday, 26 January 2014

Mata at United. Traditional Values and Styles of Play.

This week has seen the biggest January transfer since that crazy night in 2011 when Chelsea broke the British transfer record to sign Fernando Torres. This time however, Chelsea find themselves on the selling end of a massive deal for a change. Manchester United have broke their club transfer record to sign Champions League winner, Euro 2012 winner, World Cup winner and playmaker supreme Juan Mata for £37m.

Mata's first appearance as a United player

Mata was Chelsea's player of the season in 2012 and 2013, his only two full seasons there. This year however it's been an entirely different story. He's only played in half of Chelsea's games, finding himself ostracised under the returning Jose Mourinho, who's authority at Stamford Bridge simply isn't questioned. Mata's limited game-time is far from a reflection on his talents but more a representation on the rigidity of Mourinho's system. He needs his attacking midfielders to put in a considerable defensive effort and that is not one of Mata's strong points.

Gary Neville made the point this week than Juan Mata does not fit what he called the 'traditional Manchester United style of play'. It's hard to argue with this. United have a tradition of playing a 4-4-2  formation (or a modified version of it) with at least one winger and there's no obvious way that Mata fits into this formation and style of play.

It's this formation and style of play that have left many fans feeling increasingly frustrated this season. The system hasn't worked and the manager has amazingly refused to try a plan B. The Tottenham game on New Years Day was the prime example. They dominated possession, got the ball out to the wings, and played cross after cross into Danny Welbeck who was playing as the main striker. Virtually every single cross was cleared by the Spurs defence. United had no plan B and Spurs won the game. The style of play isn't working. Evolution is essential for survival in just about every aspect of life and Manchester United now need to adapt in order to survive.

Let's have a look at some ways the talents of Juan Mata can be incorporated into the Manchester United side in the coming months.

Option 1: Three Number Tens

4-2-3-1: Three advanced playmakers

Last season, Chelsea used this formation, essentially using three number tens behind the main striker. The formation was pretty fluid but generally they used Hazard on the right, Mata on the left and Oscar covering the middle. Mata and Hazard both played as inverted wingers, Mata being a left-footer on the right and Hazard a right-footer on the left. Both preferred to cut inside and shoot or play a killer pass rather than cross the ball, one of the benefits of playing these type of players.

United don't have an inverted winger in the mould of Hazard, Ashley Young would probably be the closest match to that type of player but he's not at the same level. Adnan Januzaj, despite being a left-footer would probably be the best fit to this position. He's a creative player with great vision and plenty of pace to burn.

This formation working relies on the defensive solidarity of the two central midfielders and whether they can be reliable enough to excuse the attacking quarter of the majority of their defensive duties. Rooney will put in a defensive shift but the weight of Kagawa and Mata will have to be carried by the rest of the team. I don't think United currently boast a strong enough defensive midfield combination to achieve this (Carrick/Fletcher/Fellaini/Jones/Cleverley/Giggs) so investment in the central midfield area is essential. As if that wasn't already painfully obvious.

Option 2: Winger and Playmaker Balance

4-2-2: Winger/Playmaker Balance

This is a system employed by United to very little effect this season but rivals Man City have used it to tear teams apart almost every week. It works for them because there are so many different ways City can hurt their opponents. Their  formation incorporates a true winger (Jesus Navas) on one flank and a playmaker (Silva/Nasri) on the opposite flank. This provides them with a variety of attacking options, Plan A, Plan B and Plan C etc in order to break down opponents. They can rely of Navas pace and crosses, Silva's trickery and through balls and Yaya Toure bursting forward from the middle of the park to support attacks.

This system hasn't worked for United because they haven't really got any of those things. It had been particularly noticeable in the absence of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie recently. A lot of the attack has been focused on sending crosses in where Danny Welbeck is often the only target. Anyone who's ever watched Danny Welbeck will tell you he's not a centre forward who does well feeding off crosses. Add to this that Kagawa is just not suited to playing out left and the fact United have virtually no attacking threat from central midfield and it's not hard to see why this strategy is not working for them.

Would the introduction of Mata change this? The most logical fit for him in this formation is on the left as the playmaker. This of course means leaving out Januzaj which doesn't seem fair considering how well he's been playing. He could perhaps be used as a second striker in the even of Rooney's departure but overall I don't think Mata being used in this system would change United's fortunes for the better.

Option 3: Right Sided Attacker

4-3-3: A new philosophy

This formation represents a complete change from the traditional values Gary Neville was talking about. United have almost always played a  version of the traditional 4-4-2. This formation sees them shift to a 4-3-3/4-3-2-1 formation and depends on two things: The club investing in a dynamic central midfield player (Arturo Vidal being the best example of what they need) and Wayne Rooney leaving in 2014. Both of which seem very possible.

One of the best examples of this formation working in England is Chelsea's double winning team of 2009/10 under Carlo Ancelotti which set the record for most goals scored in a Premier League season. A record the current Manchester City team (see option 2) is now threatening to surpass.

Playing three in the middle with just one main striker has become the trend in world football over the past decade. Very few top clubs now play with two strikers. Manchester City, Juventus and Atletico Madrid are the only top clubs that spring to mind still employing  this formation. Whilst Rooney and van Persie are at the club, and both virtually guaranteed starting spots, this formation is unlikely to be used regularly.

This position for Mata would be like a hybrid of an inverted winger and a true number ten. I think this would suit him well, the extra man in the middle would leave him with almost zero defensive duties and give him freedom to create. He'd be especially dangerous cutting in from the right side on his killer left foot, picking out that final ball that United have found it so hard to find this season.

Option 4: The Second Striker

4-5-1: Replacement for Rooney

This system holds truer than any to Neville's description of the traditional Manchester United style. It's a modified 4-4-2 with two wingers and  Mata as the second striker/attacking midfielder. It is the formation that makes just about the least amount of sense.

This formation, again assuming Rooney leaves in the summer, uses Mata as a second striker behind Robin van Persie, Valencia as a right winger and Januzaj on the left as a winger/playmaker. Mata has said that playing off the striker is his favourite position and that may be the case, but recent evidence would suggest that it's not his most effective position and he's better out on the right side cutting in.

Rooney works well in this position because of his dynamism and attacking work rate. Mata, for all his technical brilliance, doesn't possess either of these two attributes and wouldn't provide much of a threat from crosses either, making this system a complete non-starter.

Football is constantly changing. You can't employ the same methods over and over again and expect them to be successful. Teams have to adapt to meet the needs of the modern game if they wish to compete at the very top of it. Manchester United is a club with a rich history and some fantastic traditions with regards to bringing through youth players and playing attacking football. I'm all for staying loyal to certain traditions to some extent, but if the club refuses to evolve to meet the needs of the modern game, their stay at the top of the world game will be shortly coming to an abrupt end.

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