David Moyes has come under fire for playing Juan Mata out wide since his arrival from Chelsea last month, though the Spaniard claims he's happy to play 'anywhere'. Sky Sports quoted the playmaker as saying:
Throughout my career I have played on the left, on the right and just behind the striker. I don't mind playing anywhere the manager tells me.
Source: Sky Sports
It's hardly surprising that Mata has been so diplomatic in his response, but there's no denying that he'd rather be playing through the middle rather than out wide. So too would Shinji Kagawa, who is generally shunted out on the left flank in his increasingly sporadic appearances.
However, those criticising the manager for playing Mata out on the wing have perhaps been a little harsh. The United boss has been caught between a rock and a hard place, with Wayne Rooney pretty much undroppable, due to his temperament as much as his on-field contribution.
Rooney's game is less technical than Mata's, and so it's pretty much impossible to see him being played anywhere other than through the middle. Which begs the question: how is Moyes supposed to play both players in one position? If you want both players in the starting 11, one is going to have to go out wide.
That shouldn't be a problem for Mata, who has shown himself to be proficient both from a nominal starting position on the left and the right for Chelsea. For comparative purposes, one could also point to Kagawa's rather more impressive performances when he's drifted off the left for Japan.
It isn't so much that Mata has been playing out wide which has been the problem, but rather the team's attacking style. Rather than playing an intricate passing game with quick interchanges and fluid movement across the attacking midfield band, United have taken an exaggeratedly direct wing-play approach, often bypassing Mata's favourite zone altogether.
It's a more extreme version of how United played under Sir Alex Ferguson, under whom Kagawa unsurprisingly also struggled. I'm far from a fan of Rafael Benítez, but it's not difficult to see Kagawa slotting into one of his teams and having rather more of a positive influence than he's had at Old Trafford so far, just as Benítez managed to find Mata's best role in a more compact, stereotypically 'continental' setup.
The lack of a competent central midfield pairing which allow United to confidently push high and dominate possession in the attacking third certainly hasn't helped, but there's no denying that Moyes has to take rather more of the flak for United's stylistic issues. But it is this which he should be criticised for; not starting Mata out wide per se.
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