If the Champions League final were tomorrow and all United players were fit, we can imagine that David Moyes' team would be something like the following: David de Gea; Rafael, Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans, Patrice Evra; Danny Welbeck, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Adnan Januzaj; Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie. It's an obviously, horribly flawed side that we've seen fail again (in its various constituent parts, injuries permitting) and again this season.
Change that front four to Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Adnan Januzaj and Juan Mata, however, and the team suddenly has something about it, something to define it - a front four that can stand up against anything in Europe. It would allow the team to revert to the kind of system used in 2007-09, where the midfield sat very deep and left a clear divide between a defensive six and an attacking four, with the latter quartet so powerful they didn't need too much support.
But this is obviously not a long-term solution. United must and will address their midfield problem, and aside from questions about whether the above tactic is the most effective one, it's a terrible waste of attacking talent. If a player can score lots of goals, the reaction should be "great, he'll score lots of goals", not "great, that means our other players can do a bit more defending."
The other problem is that that front four is an odd one. It's obviously very dangerous and very good, but it comprises an almost alien-looking set-up in 2014 - not one of the players is in there for physicality at all. All four players, with the slight exception of Rooney (and the exception is increasingly slight as his game changes and his body becomes, er, increasingly not-so-slight) are technical players, to an almost fanatically pure level. Januzaj can scrap for the ball and is not slow, but he doesn't exactly have blistering pace. Mata and Van Persie are not quick either, basing their game on movement, imagination and skill.
There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it represents a huge break from the 2008-era side when Cristiano Ronaldo's phenomenal speed spearheaded the attack. It made United unbeatable on the counter-attack, something that the above four could never hope to replicate to the same extent. And if United are going to replace one of them, there's an obvious candidate: The Englishman.
While there have been rumblings about Rooney signing a new contract in the summer, it's entirely possible that he could still leave. Edinson Cavani has been touted as one potential replacement, but United have also been looking at other wide men - Marco Reus is the most glamorous figure, with Patrick Hermann a more attainable name. But it seems that United's plan going forward is to acquire another speedy winger and to replace Rooney with a more physical centre-forward if he leaves.
That would seem to be ideal for Juan Mata. It would allow him to operate in either of his two best roles - in the hole, behind the striker, focusing purely on creativity, or out on the right wing to cut inside and create. United can change which one depending on the system and the opposition. If they want him on the right, Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie can play as the deeper of a front two. If they want him in the centre, they'll have their extra winger or Danny Welbeck to move out to the right.
The flexibility allowed there means the midfield two behind don't need to be of a particular style. Moyes can go out and buy the best players he can without worrying how they'll fit in with the rest too much. There's talk about Mata needing 'the whole team build around him', as though nobody ever plays in the hole with a free role at any club. By that, they simply mean asking that other people do some of the running for him, which should not be beyond any central midfielder of the calibre we're looking at.
Mata is good enough that, while it's worth considering how to get the very best out of him, he doesn't need to be accomodated. Even if we spend heavily on recruits after his arrival, he will still be an automatic pick for the side. And that's the way it should be.
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