What’s The Mata With Manchester United?

Jul 26, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata (8) reacts after scoring in the first half against AS Roma at Sports Authority Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 26, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata (8) reacts after scoring in the first half against AS Roma at Sports Authority Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

Manchester United crashed out of the Champions League on Tuesday night at the hands of Wolfsburg and such a result should have made this weekend’s defeat to Bournemouth predictable.

Manchester United fans have been vocal in their dissatisfaction toward their team’s current style of play, labelling in dull, predictable and boring. This match certainly didn’t help the case for defence. Although the match wasn’t boring itself, it certainly doesn’t mean Manchester United played well. In fact it was their mediocre performance which allowed the game to be so open and exciting. United just look stifled of energy and space when going forward. They look scared to take risks and are frightened to express themselves. But why? The formation may have something to do with it.

This season, Louis van Gaal has usually opted for a 4-4-1-1 formation, with an attacking midfielder sitting just behind the sole striker. This, in theory, could be a winning formation and one which should suit United’s creative players. However, something just isn’t working.

Quite simply the team is too narrow and this, sadly, may be down to Juan Mata. The Spaniard is a brilliant player, technically gifted and a creative genius. Mata may be all those things but he isn’t a winger and yet for the majority of this season he has been deployed on the right-hand side.

Mata Drifting

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From his average position against West Ham last weekend, it’s quite clear that Mata still doesn’t feel comfortable on the right. He drifted in field far too frequently, making the middle of the pitch far to compact. It appears United have four players occupying the same position on the pitch, all wanting that attacking midfield role, all stifling each other’s space.

Players drifting in from the wing is nothing new in the modern game, however, the system relies on attacking full-backs who are comfortable bombing forwards. At the moment, this just isn’t happening. Neither Paddy McNair, a center-back by trade, nor the young Varela seemed keen to get forward against West Ham. Therefore the right-wing was left redundant, restricting Manchester United to half the pitch from which to attack. Why are the players so scared to get forward? It seems to fall in-line with the accusations that LVG has firmly put the shackles on his side, prioritising possession over risk taking.

Mata Down The Middle

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On Tuesday night, with Rooney still injured, Juan Mata was played in his more comfortable position just behind the striker. The result was so predictable. Mata assisted Martial with a superb pass and seemed more confident in taking players on. His right-wing spot was subsequently taken by Jesse Lingard, a player who has excelled so far this season. Incredibly though, despite playing so well on the opposite flank, even Lingard started to drift in, causing the exact same problem as Mata creates.

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The reason is simple. You don’t even need statistics; just watch any game United play. It appears they only want to attack down the left. They obviously want to use the pace of Depay and Martial who tend to play on the left-hand side but this is a tactic which is so easily defended. The right-sided players are evidently getting frustrated and are drifting in to get involved.

Varela, despite having a good match on Tuesday night, didn’t venture forward enough again. He only made one cross into the opposition’s box and most of his touches came in his own half. This is a perfect example of the ‘safe play’ philosophy which van Gaal has brought to Old Trafford, the same philosophy which is frustrating the club’s faithful.

Opposition Left-Backs Get A Day Off

Due to the lack of attacking nouce down the right-hand side , oppoisiton left-backs are left having nothing to do. In the game agaisnt Wolfsburg, left-back Ricardo Rodriguez didn’t have to make a single tackle. In fact the defender had more touches in the opposition half, an embarrasing statistic for Manchester United’s right side. Compare this to Wolfsburg’s right-back and you see just how one-sided van Gaal’s side is. Christian Trasch made 9 tackles at right-back, had to deal with more ariel battles and was far more restricted to his defensive duties.

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If United are to get back to the glory days then the shackles have to come off. They need to keep the width and begin to attack in a more balanced, unpredictable manner. Old Trafford has been famous for their wingers in the past and sadly Juan Mata doesn’t live up to the expectation of a Manchester United wide-man. Therefore he needs to play down the middle or if he must play on the wing, the right-back has to be willing (allowed) to push forward.