Should Mata continue his form and place in the line-up, what is going to happen to Angel Di Maria’s United career?
Di Maria has not enjoyed the most fruitful of spells in his new club after starting in prime fashion when he was purchased for a record £60m. Manchester United have had a sketchy season so far, but have found some much needed form in this past two games against Spurs and rivals Liverpool, in which Mata has featured successfully. Di Maria has been among the assists and the build-ups that have contributed to United’s goals and victories this season, but his influence and performing standards have dropped since his time on the sidelines with injuries after a strong start.
As Louis van Gaal tried to accommodate his superstars in the starting line-up, he had to sacrifice Juan Mata in a bid to accommodate three forwards. Van Gaal played club Captain Wayne Rooney, ideally a striker or a supporting striker, as a midfielder in the heart of United’s midfield. Angel Di Maria held his position in attacking midfield while Young, Blind and Carrick became the other regular midfield players. A superstar loan signing in the form of Falcao was seeming as a burden for the club when he started games with van Persie in a strike partnership that lacked any sort of chemistry.
Man United’s style of play was regressive and was not of the standards that the club previously set under Ferguson. Van Gaal is a top manager and fans believed in him, but perhaps his casual behavior in the summer transfer window going for star power than balance was hitting him now. The long ball game play gave them results, of course on the back of their goalkeeper’s brilliance, as De Gea pretty easily became the most in-form goalkeepers in the league.
Juan Mata’s opportunities.
In rather unfortunate circumstances, Robin Van Persie injured himself and Van Gaal had to give Mata a real go at the first team. Falcao was subsequently dropped and Fellaini was used as a target man supporter for Wayne Rooney, who played furthest forward.
Juan Mata occupied the wide right attacking midfield spot, and was required to drift inwards and create chances. Also, along with van Persie’s injury, came Di Maria’s domestic suspension following the game against Arsenal. Mata was finally given the mantle to drive the midfield in advanced areas. After being played ridiculously out of positions or in roles that he was never used to play, he was now given a role that gave him freedom to roam around the striker.
Without van Persie and Di Maria, Man Utd fielded 5 midfielders against Spurs- Carrick, Herrera, Young, Mata and Fellaini, while Daley Blind was shifted to Left Back. Here we can easily see how van Gaal played each player to his favoured role, as Carrick played as the lone holding midfielder, Herrera in a wide-central box to box midfield role, Ashley Young in a predominantly wide role and Mata, irrespective of his position on paper, was occupying the hole behind Wayne Rooney, as Fellaini made his impact more as a strike partner than as a midfielder.
More freedom and fighting for each other.
Much has been said about how Juan Mata does not add up to his offensive contributions with defensive work. Jose Mourinho did not mind selling Chelsea’s consecutive player of the year of two seasons to rivals for this plain flaw. But van Gaal made a clever move by sacrificing the need for extra work rate in deeper areas by committing Carrick into a holding role, and Herrera and Young working box to box. Young has been transformed into a hardworking wing back from a tricky and inconsistent winger, and all this led to having more luxury in offense.
While it certainly helps having Mata on the pitch than an out of form Falcao, who both aren’t good defensively. Mata offers playmaking ability better than anyone in Man Utd and the manager needed to utilize that. Combining the Spaniards Herrera and Mata on the pitch to fight for each other, was a good plan. Both have had average seasons so far and haven’t been regular on the pitch, but this partnership would soon be a strong and in full bloom if things go as we saw from the Spurs and Liverpool games.
Angel Di Maria- Reduced role, Reduced Responsibility and maybe reduced pressure?
If Mata continues to deliver like he is currently doing, and how well he has adapted to a role carrying initiative, we are likely to see him retain his spot. After all he makes the Red Devils play beautifully when given the license. In Angel Di Maria, we have a player who used to be a regular and consistent winger for Real Madrid before playing a season in central midfield, similar to the role Herrera plays these days, and excelling.
But, in Man Utd, he was perhaps given too much responsibility to build attacks in the forward areas, where he is not so much of an expert. In a counter attacking set-up or in a traditional English set-up, Di Maria would provide excellent long aerial passes and crosses for target men, but in a style where the game is built on shorter passes and intricate movements, Di Maria was not able to drive the midfield but was rather a feisty winger whenever played.
So the next step for van Gaal would be to officially make Di Maria a right winger and play Mata centrally in an organized 4-2-3-1 formation. Mata has shown how well he can play with good wingers next to him, especially in Chelsea where he and Eden Hazard wrecked havoc along with Oscar. While we can clearly see that Hazard and Di Maria are different types of players, Mata would still find it easier to work with a traditional and world class winger like the Argentinian.
Angel Di Maria’s future in Manchester United would be largely as a traditional winger, someone who would stay wide and cross or cut in and shoot, while Mata would be a player who would provide the build ups. But given United’s depth in star power and too many players with huge egos, we’d have to see if van Gaal sticks to the amazing balance that he has found with this set of midfielders or have a rotation plan and decide on seeing off this season by just getting the wins, like he did for most part of the season.