At Old Trafford on Tuesday, one could feel the desperation for a win, the emotional return of one of United’s most loyal servants, Solskjaer, and the excitement that had brewed over the club’s record signing’s debut. Facing a Cardiff team that eked out a 2-2 tie when the two sides met back in late November, at Cardiff City Stadium, and boosted by the return of Rooney and van Persie, Moyes’s side looked to forget about the devastating Capital One Cup loss to Sunderland and take three vital points.
All the speculation ahead of Tuesday’s league fixture was around how Moyes was going to utilize the back-to-back Chelsea player of the year. Picking a starting line-up would have been a no brainer for Moyes had Rooney and van Persie not been fit for the contest but the Scotsman’s squad on Tuesday was as healthy as it’s ever been all season.
As I wrote last week, Mata’s frustration under Mourinho reached another level following the Spaniard’s deployment on the right flank, in what seemed to be on a permanent basis, if he wanted to play an active role in the Portuguese's plans. Mourinho tasked Mata with a more defensive role, not just in terms of tracking back but also making sure not to overcrowd the middle, and hoped that he would lead counter-attacks down the flank. However, the Spaniard's lack of speed limited his effectiveness to charge out with the ball and he struggled mightily. And because of this, David Moyes had to alter his formation in order to utilize Mata with the greatest effect.
The Red Devils played under a 4-4-1-1 formation that saw the deployment of Phil Jones, the "jack of all trades", and the 40-year-old Giggs in midfield, Mata behind van Persie while Valencia and Ashley Young operated on the right and left wing, respectively. Moreover, Evans and Smalling were paired up in central defense while Fabio and Evra played on the flanks.
At the final whistle, the United cruised to a reasonably comfortable win in front of the 75,300 present at Old Trafford that temporarily made the fans forget about the midfield's continuing struggles with possession.
Juan Mata’s Much Anticipated Debut
Against Cardiff, the Red Devils were able to exchange passes in midfield momentarily, a la Argentina 2006 instead of simply playing the ball down the flanks and sending crosses into the 18 yard box, a rarity all season. In the first 15 minutes especially, the men in red showed off all the dazzling new pass combinations and the ball rattled between them at thrilling speed, with an assurance rarely seen in front of the home crowd in recent months. Not everything Mata tried worked out but he linked up well with teammates and completed 44 of his 51 passes. Also, Mata's pass combination with Valencia (15) was the highest on either side.
The return to the 4-4-1-1 was undeniably an attempt by Moyes to ease his new acquisition’s debut in front of the home crowd. While Mata, who played in a No.10 role didn't have a Rooney-esque debut, he was nonetheless promisingly influential as the Red Devils secured three points and a clean sheet. Mata's vision added another dimension to United and presented the opposition with a new threat to cope with, making the team less predictable.
In 1994, at this point in the season, United were thirteen points ahead in the Premier League and playing some of their best football. That team was hinged around Mark Hughes’s ability to hold up the ball, Cantona role in a withdrawn position and Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis on the wings. Sir Alex's formation back then shifted to a 4--2-4 from a 4-4-1 when attacking. United's current squad has the potential to replicate the potency of the offense during Cantona's reign of terror behind Mata's playmaking ability and the fire power upfront.
Mata brings his creativity to a side that has at times looked shellshocked and players like van Persie and Rooney could certainly benefit from it. The Spain international has provided more assists per game in Premier League history than any player apart from Cesc Fabregas and the greatest Old Trafford catalyst of recent times, Eric Cantona. On Tuesday, Mata showed glimpses of the greatness that is to come as he put his delicate touches and his aptitude to see the pass that no one else sees on display. He was credited with an assist, although cheap by some standards, on Ashley Young's tally and was at the origin of his cross-field ball to Evra that began the cross which ultimately led to van Persie's sixth minute opener.
It is not easy to settle into a new side, but Mata's presence has already made United feel like a more potent squad, at least offensively. David Moyes's decision to sign the Spaniard will be nothing short of genius if he former Blue can have an impact similar in nature to Ozil's at Arsenal.
While the win (combined with Mata's debut and van Persie's return) might have been at the origin of a joyful feeling around Old Trafford, it didn't entirely gloss over the various deficiencies and ailments that exists in the squad and should prompt the Glazers and Ed Woodward to further investment, especially in midfield.
The Midfield Still Needs Blood
Ryan Giggs once again deputized for the injured Carrick and showed why he’s been United’s second most consistent midfielder this season. The Welshman’s good passing completion (36 out 40) and his eye for the unexpected created a sense of potential whenever he had the ball. However, this isn’t the same Giggs who ripped Arsenal to shreds in 1999, he’s 40 now and doesn't have the body to duke it out with younger, rugged opposing midfielders. His playing time this season hints at the team’s lack of talent at the midfield position as Carrick has been sidelined often, Cleverly still hasn't found a way to put all of the pieces together and Fellaini's failure to impress ever since he arrived from Everton still continues.
United's weakness in the center of the feild was evident Tuesday as they were beaten in the possession battle (52 to 48) and the limitations in midfield were copiously exposed as Bellamy (49), Peter Whittingham (79) and Gary Medel (63) all comfortably outpassed their opposite men.
With the team operating under a 4-4-1-1 and with the midfield's struggles to dominate possession, van Persie seemed isolated at times while Mata was drawn deep in order to get the ball.
The United midfield's shallowness has been a hot topic all season. And the fact that the Red Devils midfield best performance all season, against Bayer Leverkusen away in the Champions League came from Ryan Giggs, who started his 800th game for the club Tuesday night and a converted centre back Phil Jones couldn't be a clearer sign that David Moyes need some more reinforcements if he wants to have a well balanced team.
Mata and Rooney will have to be more flexible with their positional preferences on the pitch if United want to give themselves the best chance to win as many football matches as possible out of what remains of this season. A delighted David Moyes hinted at the possibility of using Mata and Rooney in different roles during his postgame press conference. "We'll get used to Juan and he'll get used to us," the United manager said. "It was good to get him and Robin together and we'll use Juan in different positions. I can play him in any role - off the left or the right allows me to keep Robin and Wayne as a partnership, and he's also capable of playing 10 as well."
Moyes can create an attack that could make Premier League defenses lose sleep at night if he can successfully play Rooney and Mata on the same side without allowing teams to guess where they are going to pop up next. This approach is something United have done before in the glorious 2008 season. That year, Ronaldo began as an out and out winger before his goalscoring exploits saw him move further infield. Eventually, he was given a free role and Rooney, along with Carlos Tevez, interchanged positions in a rotating carousel that was impossible to defend against.
And while United still need new blood, Tuesday’s performance marked a satisfactory start for the future and the Old Trafford faithful should be excited by the prospect of some combination of Rooney, Mata, Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj behind Van Persie.
TheStretfordEnd writes for InsideTheFilmRoom.com