Manchester United vs Cardiff, Old Trafford, 28 January, 2014

6th minute:

Juan Mata, from the centre circle sprays a skillful long ball out to the left wing, which is controlled by Patrice Evra, who finds Ashley Young with a short pass. Young crosses in brilliantly, Valencia hits the crossbar but Robin van Persie heads home from a second rebound.

59th minute:

Juan Mata collects the ball in the Cardiff City half, looks up to see Ashley Young’s run on the left wing and plays a fluent pass out to the wing man, who cuts back and unleashes a ferocious shot into the back of the net. 2-0; good night Cardiff City.

In a positive debut, that was nowhere as brilliant as a certain Wayne Rooney’s in the Champions League against Fenerbahce in 2004, Juan Mata registered his first assist in a Manchester United shirt and started the move that led to Robin van Persie’s opener in the sixth minute. Juan Mata has arrived at Old Trafford to do what he does best – spraying passes, finding teammates and creating goals. Although this wasn’t a Mata at his best, he wasn’t too bad for someone who is lacking match fitness and sharpness, having been used sparingly at Chelsea by Jose Mourinho this season.

David Moyes is in the enviable position of having Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata at his disposal, but has the understandably unenviable task of playing all of them together. And against Cardiff on Tuesday he chose the easy way out – playing Van Persie as a lone striker, leaving Rooney on the bench and giving Mata his preferred number 10 role. Even when Rooney did come on from the bench, it was to replace Van Persie, giving us no clear indications on how Moyes intends to field all three on the same pitch.

Mata played some fantastic passes across the pitch, coming as deep as a defensive midfielder on occasions to collect passes from team mates and get himself involved in the game. Some of his touches were poor though, while a few of his passes went astray. The understanding at times was not there between Mata and his team mates, which is acceptable at this time. But the gloom has lifted at Old Trafford. The players seem to enjoy having a player of Mata’s ability in their team and the fans gave him a standing ovation when Mata was substituted in the 84th minute for Adnan Januzaj.

This leaves us now with the question on where Mata would play when United have a fit team. Mata’s preferred role is clearly the number 10 behind the striker, but when Wayne Rooney is fit and available, he is expected to slot in as a number 10 behind Robin Van Persie. This leaves the wings for Mata to operate in, making Antonio Valencia, Adnan Januzaj or Ashley Young the unfortunate sacrifices. We look at the three possible scenarios Mata can play in and what that brings to the team.

Scenario 1: Mata, the Number 10

Like how Mata set up in the game against Cardiff, the number 10 is the first scenario. Mata will be given the free, roving role where he can come deep into midfield to collect the ball, exchange passes and play the final ball to his attackers to create the goals. The most likely scenario here is Mata playing behind Van Persie, whose instinctive forward positions and runs even before the pass has been executed from midfield are something former United manager Alex Ferguson has been a big fan of. Van Persie is the perfect attacker to play in this formation and Mata will find him with his accurate through balls and perfectly weighted passes.

Mata as a number 10 behind Van Persie

Mata as a number 10 behind Van Persie

Such a formation risks isolating Wayne Rooney. The England forward has in the past complained about not having the chance to play in his favoured attacking role, and a spell on the bench might strengthen his resolve to move away from Old Trafford in the summer with a year remaining on his contract. Moyes played Mata behind Rooney in the second half against Cardiff, and the England man offered a different outlet compared with Van Persie.

Time and again, Rooney dropped back to collect the ball like a False 9, leaving spaces in front for Mata, which the Spaniard rarely took up. It will be an interesting approach to play Rooney as a False 9 with Mata as the hub in the number 10 role. Such an attacking approach would require more fluidity and positional interchange between players – something United are not the most comfortable at.

Mata as a number 10 with Rooney in a False 9 position - unlikely but possible

Mata as a number 10 with Rooney in a False 9 position – unlikely but possible

Nevertheless, with Mata playing as a number 10, there is no way Moyes can accommodate Van Persie and Rooney together with the Spaniard in the same starting line-up with the current 4-2-3-1 formation. The options that can be explored are Rooney in left wing, as he played in the days when Cristiano Ronaldo played through the middle – something Rooney would not be willing to do at this point in his career, or playing with two up front. Were Rooney and Van Persie to play as a front two with Mata just behind them in an attacking midfield role, it would put a lot of pressure on an already brittle midfield.

Playing Van Persie and Rooney together would mean playing with either a 4-3-1-2 formation that lacks wingers or a 3-4-1-2 formation, an alien playing style at United. United’s central defenders are undoubtedly not good enough to play with three at the back a la Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli at Juventus.

United playing a 3-5-2 involves their three best attackers at the top

United playing an unlikely 3-5-2 involves their three best attackers at the top

The fact remains that while playing him as a number 10 exploits Juan Mata’s best abilities, it would isolate either one of Van Persie or Rooney.

Scenario 2: Mata, the Winger

It only makes sense for David Moyes to field his best attacking talent week in week out. This means playing Van Persie, Rooney and Mata together. And it follows that for this to happen, Mata must play on the wings. The casualties of this would be the current wingers Antonio Valencia, Adnan Januzaj or Ashley Young. Moyes himself has spoken about how he intends to use Mata in many positions. The subtext of this clearly means he will give his 37.1 million pounds signing a run out on the wings. Moyes has subtly suggested Mata would play “off the left or off the right” indicating his proclivity to use Mata as a winger.

Jose Mourinho had a final dig after Mata’s transfer to Manchester United claiming it is difficult for Mata to play on the wings. The Spaniard lost his preferred number 10 role to Oscar at Chelsea and there might be some truth to Mourinho’s skepticism at playing Mata on the wings, but the 25 year old Spaniard will have to adapt at Old Trafford. Mata has played exceptionally for Chelsea on the wings in the past – the cameo against Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League early on this season a prime example of it – and at United, he will have to up his game to consistently figure in Moyes’s plans as a winger.

Mata’s strengths from the wing, his dribbling, crossing and cutting in from the right are offset by his suspect defensive abilities. The way United play, it is common to find wing backs flying down the pitch to assist in attacks and this requires defensive support from wingers who give their wing backs the licence to hurtle down time and again during a match. Patrice Evra, himself, has been accused of neglecting his defensive duties by charging down the left wing to attack the opposition’s right side. A combination of Mata and Evra on the left wing could prove disastrous for United in an opposition counter attack. With both left attacking the onus could fall on one of the central midfielders to cover ground and protect United’s left side.

Mata as a winger on the right - The best fit for United

Mata as a winger on the right – The best fit for United

On the right, Mata looks a better fit. His ability to cut back against the opposing full back, and then cross the ball or take a shot looks far more threatening. Mata has played in the past on the right in a three man attacking midfield behind a lone striker at Chelsea, and right wing might be the position Mata ends up filling. The axe would then fall on Antonio Valencia, who isn’t a flair player, although he provides telling crosses and is effective doing his defensive duties. It is perhaps better than for United and Mata that Rafael and Smalling, when he plays at right back, are lesser inclined to fly down United’s right wing than Evra is on the left.

The wings look the most likely playing position for Mata. And with the trio of Januzaj, Rooney and Mata playing behind Van Persie, United look set to revive their season and fight for a Champions League spot in the league table.

Scenario 3: Mata, the Central Midfield Playmaker

The least likely of these scenarios is left for last. Imagining Mata play alongside Michael Carrick in central midfield is an idea steeped in midfield insecurity. Andrea Pirlo does it in Italy and closer home, not so long ago, Luka Modric did it at Spurs, but the idea of a deep lying playmaker does not suit United’s style. For one, United’s gameplay isn’t like the defensive minded Italians’. Playing with a deep lying playmaker will slow down attacks, and will need excellent discipline and tacking ability from the central midfield partner.

Closer home, a couple of seasons ago, Modric was able to pull off this central midfield role playing behind Rafael van der Vaart, the number 10 and alongside Scott Parker, who was the tackler in the team. Parker’s ability to break up play and tackle was what allowed Modric to express himself as a playmaker from deep. United have neither got tacking ability in Michael Carrick, nor does Mata take on the odd defensive job as Modric did in the Spurs midfield.

Mata as a deep lying playmaker: an alien style of play at United

Mata as a deep lying playmaker: an alien style of play at United

A likely combination in midfield to pull this design off would be pairing Mata with Marouane Fellaini or Phil Jones. The combative Belgian and the hard working Jones are the kind of tacklers who could break up opposition play and use their strength to boss the midfield. However, United would lose the intelligence and control from midfield that Carrick offers in such a role. That being said, this option could be worth exploring, and Mata could be given a lot more freedom in such a role with the tenacious Wayne Rooney dropping in from his number 10 position to help out now and then.

We leave you with a glimpse of Mata’s promising performance against Cardiff on Tuesday: