There’s something quite unsettling about the transfer of an expensive, high profile player from one of the Premier League’s top clubs to another – probably because it happens so infrequently. Examples in recent history have undoubtedly heightened that sense of unease, with Fernando Torres’s infamous period as Chelsea’s number nine the most noteworthy disappointment in the last decade. Ordinarily, of course, elite clubs are willing and able to raid the foreign leagues for their most prodigious talents and naturally see it counterintuitive to pay handsome sums to their domestic rivals, even if it means relieving them of their finest players. Indeed, this is probably at the heart of the contemporary issue regarding the lack of chances afforded to English players at club level, with the millions available more readily spent on Argentine or Spanish youngsters than British ones.
Angel Di Maria has this season become the most costly indication of how far from guaranteed success a big money signing can be. With just three goals in 21 appearances for Manchester United, the winner of last season’s Champions League arrived at Old Trafford with expectations that he simply hasn’t come close to fulfilling. His transfer fee of £59.7 million is a British record and some way above Juan Mata’s £37.1 million move from Chelsea to United in January 2014, which was, at the time, the Red Devils’ record signing. In spite of the aforementioned apprehension that comes with a headline transfer deal between two of English football’s titans, the Spaniard is beginning to show just as much brilliance for United as he did at Stamford Bridge and has effectively replaced Di Maria in Louis Van Gaal’s meticulous midfield formation.
It seems the Dutch coach – and the Old Trafford faithful – had finally lost patience with the successive lacklustre attacking displays after Man United’s 1-2 defeat at home to Arsenal in the FA Cup quarterfinal at the beginning of March. In the subsequent games that month, Van Gaal opted for Mata over Di Maria, with Michael Carrick holding and Wayne Rooney reinstated up front. Following months of experimentation and an apparent lack of clarity over his strongest team, Van Gaal might just have found his perfect setup, with Mata holding the key to much-improved offensive performances.
Against Newcastle United in mid-March, the Red Devils powered their way to a 3-0 victory, looking as convincing as they have all season. Rooney took most of the media attention due to a punchy celebration of his and United’s third goal and also because the simple truth is that pundits and fans across the country were pleased to see England’s captain being played where he is most effective. It was the most recent game, against Liverpool at Anfield, where the real importance of Van Gaal’s changes was plain to see. Making the decision to play four at the back simplified things considerably for United’s midfielders, who were tasked with keeping the ball from the impressive trio of Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling. They did this wonderfully; passing with a tempo that rivalled any performance from any side in the top flight this season.
Individually, United’s midfield players were excellent. Carrick kept the ball and distributed with the composure for which he is now being touted as a vital starter for England. The masterstroke from Van Gaal, though, came in his acknowledgement of the link between Ander Herrera and Mata. The Spaniards appeared to be liberated from the previously rigid style with which the United manager has become associated and their mutual understanding unlocked the Liverpool defence consistently, ultimately leading to the first goal. Marouane Fellaini’s contribution was also imperative in both the Newcastle and Liverpool wins. Played in the position that earned him his move from Everton (as a physical brute-like number 10), the Belgian kept the ball moving in United’s favour from wing to wing.
It was a display worthy of United’s prestige and ought to have impressed their expectant supporters no end. But why was Mata particularly central to everything that has been altered in the last two games? Aside from the two quite magnificent goals he scored at Anfield, his main contribution was the nature in which he plays and how he implicated his teammates in that style. Though classed as a winger, Mata is quite unlike the traditional chalk-on-the-boots, cross-loving, pace-driven players that normally occupy those zones. Mata thrives because of his intelligence and speed of decision-making. Not one to draw players and then dart away or win a free-kick, Mata is more interested in moving the ball quickly, finding space, receiving it and then releasing again. Mata is not confined to the position he has been assigned and it is his tendency to drift and capacity to locate open areas that makes him so dangerous in the Premier League. Simple perhaps, but it’s something a European Cup winner like Di Maria has thus far failed to do.
Gary Neville wrote in The Telegraph just a couple of weeks ago that it is no longer acceptable for England to hold onto its belief that it is the toughest league. Physicality is not something that many of the players arriving on these shores involve in their games, nor do they appreciate being subjected to it. Mata learnt this quickly at Chelsea, accepting quickly that his strength lies in his sharpness of movement and of mind. Di Maria, thus far, has seemed intent on looking to win free-kicks over moving the ball quickly and determined to outpace players rather than find a teammate and dart into space. The Argentine is no Eden Hazard (not many are even close), who makes all of those things quite simple. Di Maria would do well to observe Mata’s skill and trickery, because it has injected a lethal edge to United that has been missing for much of this campaign so far.
The international break has not represented an opportunity for Mata to continue his impressive form, which is striking for a number of reasons. First, his absence from his country’s starting team is demonstrative of Spain’s strength in depth in his position. Second, it highlights just how numerous Spain’s players of his type are, with England in possession of very few of his ilk. The reality, when confronted with the question about why there is such a dearth of English players being given opportunities to prove themselves, is that they have not been equipped with the tools to think, act and achieve with speed and precision. They’d rather hold onto their big, shiny and tremendously overrated physicality.
One thing is for sure: Juan Mata is on course to be one of the most successful high profile signings from one huge Premier League outfit to another and his helping United to consolidate Champions League football for next season is just further proof of his class. Fans of the club will be pleased that his value has been recognised by Van Gaal and that he was not allowed to wither on the bench in much the same manner that Shinji Kagawa did before him.