A country man is left stranded, another country man sends in a weighted pass, therea s all the time in the world as he glides in and caresses the ball into the net. A boyish smile pops up and the magician smiles. He has pulled a trick, a trick no one saw coming, certainly not 6 months earlier with his future at the club in doubt. Ita s the North-West Derby and he has made 3000 fans seem louder than 37,000. Therea s a twinkle in the eye that seemed to be glazed with hurt at the hours spent sitting on the bench. Nothing seemed to be working until two weeks back. Then, he plays as a false right winger, a new position and all of a sudden everything is paused, the twinkle takes over, the smile is back and the ball bobs at his command.
Slick suit, a reputation for slack defensive cover, he arrived to much fanfare. There was skepticism too. After all, neither had David Moyes nor Sir Alex made proper use of Shinji Kagawa, a similar No10, who expects the play to be built around him, who runs into pockets of space and unleashes the final ball – weighted, perfectly meeting the stronger foot and expected to be beautifully ushered into goal. The striker has only to direct the ball, everything has been set in motion by the little magician – short, with an ability to defy gravity and physics with movement and creativity. Juan Mata. He was to be The One, the spirit who’d free United from the shackles of Moyes’ defensive style, unshackle the team from their dungeon and lead them up the stairs to promised glory.
It didn’t matter the diminutive Japanese had not managed it. There were talks that the Premier League was too taxing for him. Mata, a two time Chelsea Player of the Year, knew the league. He had come to Old Trafford and showered magic. People would also not forget how he ruled Stamford Bridge, until Jose Mourinho wanted an interceptor at No10. No one would forget the 3-3 draw under Sir Alex’s last season. A Fernando Torres cross from the right produced one of the goals of the season. In dazzling passages of play, he produced the unimaginable, the joy of watching him so pure even opposition fans didn’t begrudge him. He was the man they wanted in their team, to provide the spark in a team that lacked creativity. He was the big budget signing they’d been denied by Sir Alex Ferguson. Sir Alex could deny them; he could deny them everything because he could win without a marauding presence on the field. He gave them the X factor.
Third season at Chelsea, The Special One seemed to have drained out the magic. The One seemed to be carrying burdens off the football pitch. The bench was heavy, Financial Fair Play loomed large and he didna t intercept problems, he didna t tackle them with urgency. The pace of his game wasna t special. The bench loomed. Fans moaned, there were tears and a special player became an ornament, an antiquity – a Rolls Royce among Aston Martins.
200 miles to the north, there was a manager with a ghost on his back. He was labeled The Chosen One. He seemed lost, the fans were deserting him. Fan blogs criticized him. The transfer market was deemed a failure. He hadna t addressed the lack of creativity in midfield. There werena t enough goals. Robin van Persie was unhappy. He didna t fancy himself as Ferguson. Player wanted their chips. Fans wanted the tempo and team of old. They wanted champions. They wanted end to end football played at breakneck speed. They wanted a team that would win. A helicopter brought them a hero theya d prayed for. Theya ll show the Londoners what was wrong with them. They would show the glitzy, rich folks how magicians are to be treated. There was hope in a season of despair when he got out of the helicopter that Ed Woodward had sent for him.
A number 10 from Japan, a number 10 from Spain. Ita s a problem of plenty. Neither comfortable as winger, neither tracked back enough, neither ran hard at defenders. The English game was not for them. They had to pass; they needed teams to have possession. They needed players to press. They didna t fit in. Different combinations, different players are tried. Liverpool, Manchester City came and ran rings. There is not short fix. The One doesna t make a difference. He doesna t fit in, people claim. Another Moyes transfer bust. Scholes tells the fans what they dona t want to hear. Mata is a flop. For 37.5 million pounds, one expects a player to dictate play not react. A manager is sacked. He will be sold, the papers do their rounds. Giggs doesna t like him. Scholes has passed judgment. The fans are nervy. He tries to appease fans with his blogposts when the passes arena t working.
Enter Louis van Gaal after executing a successful 3-5-2 with Netherlands at the World Cup. A 3-5-2. 150 million pounds are splashed. Angel Di Maria is purchased. There is pandemonium. Someone with flair, passing, vision and perfect crosses had arrived. The wings were taken care of. The Japanese was sold to beloved Dortmund. Now the Spanish magician would be unleashed. Everyone knew Mata needed players who could do the running to receive his wonderful passes. He couldna t be expected to break open defences and win games if there was no on to be at the receiving end of the passes. Di Maria would be that man. Di Maria would draw the players away, Mata would seduce the ball, Rooney, Robin Van Persie and Falcao would score goals. Louis Van Gaal would save Manchester United. They would score more goals than concede and if things went bad they had another Spaniard to save them the blushes. Surely, this team would explode. A master tactician who loved possession football and knew how to win combining with players who liked to pass and move, there couldna t be a better fit. To bring more comfort, they win a tournament with teams like Inter Milan and Real Madrid playing as well. There is euphoria. Last seasona s demons would be expunged.
There are two kinds of superior possession style systems in the world of football, both derived from Rinus Michels and Cryuffa s Total Football. One propagated by the Biesla school, used everywhere Louis van Gaal hasna t been an influence and the other Van Gaala s post-Total Football game. While the former believes in running behind the ball, both with and without it, Van Gaal believes in positional supremacy. He likes his players to move forward by passing the ball in triangles, each triangle carefully angled, created to open pockets of space, draw in the air and choke the defence into submission. It is a system tailor made for people who havena t got that extra pace. It is also a system which needs men with pace on the wings and a bonus if they are also at the top. It is a system where Mata would shine, if trusted.
In Spanish football, teams either use Biesla or Van Gaala s philosophy unless you still believe that flashing money and playing counter-attacking football is the way. Both systems have postcard picture moments, where the ball is at a playera s feet and everything else about the game goes to pause. The fans are open mouthed and the opposition cannot move. The dynamo dissects them, pauses and controls the game. It is like a violin maestro able to hold the last note of a song long enough for everything else to melt away or Peter Green’s guitar wailing the blues. Therea s a joy in the languid afternoon siesta. The a pausaa is a siesta that only the great midfielders bring to the game. Arda Turan does it at Atletico. Mata did it at Chelsea. Kagawa did it at Dortmund. Mata could do it at Manchester United, under Louis van Gaal. Theories always sound exotic on paper, poetic words make them esoteric but at United, the men executing the philosophy seemed to make it dull, running everywhere and nowhere.
The season has been mixed. The results show a team on the up but the play has been dull. Some of the best players have looked lackluster. There wasna t any comfort in possession, no certainty in the forward ball. Manchester United missed Carricka s assurance from the back of the center line, they missed Herreraa s dynamism but what it missed more than anything was the a pausaa which makes Van Gaala s system work. Herreraa s inability to move from the Biesla system to the Van Gaal style meant Rooney played at central midfield. It meant a lack of dynamism with the ball. It meant more running for Mata. It also meant too many turns for Falcao and RvP to work it out at the top. The halted youngster was Januzaj. The sacrificial lamb was Mata. He didna t fit in. He didna t have the flair of Di Maria, he didna t play the ball into the legs of a heavy Falcao or a slow Robin Van Persie. He lost the ball against Leicester City, giving away the game. He was not the Mata of Chelsea, the man who orchestrated them for two seasons. He wasna t the conductor of the symphony, he was a spectator, timid and unsure of the beauty that had escaped his notice.
Until Tottenham, until his inner Neo took over. The system has changed again. Ita s a 4-4-2. Like in the Matrix, therea s an awakening. Mata has changed positions. He has become a false right winger. It is Neo against Morpheus. He is learning the rules, bending the system. He is running into position. He is drawing Bentelab away. There is a splattering of passes. 49 of them. 87% reached their destination. There are 2 tackles thrown in for good measure. Like Neo, he is finding his place. Maybe, he is The One. The talk isna t loud. Fellaini and Carrick have performed better. Theya ve drawn in the applause and Rooney has knocked a lot of things out. Mata is in the periphery but Carrick knows he has given them life. He has seen the man play and knows what a joy it has been.
A man walks into United folklore in two fixtures. One is in the North-West derby and the other is at the Manchester derby. Arsenal was important once. Now, United is ambitious. Theya ve started to take their blue rivals more seriously than the French maestroa s team. The North-West Derby. Pre-game talks with pundits, including Gary Neville, is to attack Can/Moreno using Di Mariaa s pace. Mata doesna t bring the pace. Carrick and Herrera will provide the postcard moments. Everyone wants the 59 million pound man to come alive. Even the fans will him alive. But Van Gaal knows his team now. Atleast, there is a hint of it. He has discarded leadweights like Falcao. Maybe El Tigre will roar again but not yet. The system hasna t changed this time. The trust pays and how! For 30 minutes in the first half, the game is run by 3 men a Carrick, Herrera and Mata. They pass with Fellaini doing the dirty work and Blind joining in to form triangles with either of these men the controlling point. Van Gaala s philosophy from his Ajax days comes to memory. The system has become irrelevant. There are triangles. Alt J might be the ones performing. Everyone from United is tessellating. Incisive passes with triangulated positioning and pressing that Guardiola would find uncomfortable to put up against. Mata tackles, Fellaini shields the team. This was United playing the Van Gaal way. This was Mata finding his destiny. He had become The One. The Di Maria clamoring would come alive for a passing moment but only for a moment of wonderful imagination, bullet bending moment from The One for the second goal against Liverpool. He roars after the goal. Fans erupt. Anfield has been conquered. 37.5 million pounds has been repaid. The world had halted. The system may very well fail next week but for two weeks, it was perfect. There was life when only bleak dementor kisses beckoned.
This was to be Mataa s game into United folklore. He would walk into hallowed company. He would give United life. He would break the system, bend it, mould it and shower it with his magic. No helicopter entrance could outdo this. He has arrived. The One.
This is a guest post authored by Hithesh Devasya exclusively for TheHardTackle