Another game, another 3-0 win, and since the time I began to write about United I can finally write from the lofty heights of the top of the Premier League. Despite the fact that Louis van Gaal has restored respectability and authority to our club, the rumblings of a particular uncultured section of our support are still there. These rumblings often centre around the unorthodoxy of some of van Gaal’s decisions, but rather than thinking about them in more detail and having a real think why he does what he does sometimes, there is a simple moan as to why he doesn’t do what to them is blatantly obvious. They have questioned among many other things:
The decision to play 3-5-2, when it is precisely that formation which instantly stopped the glut of goals we were conceding when playing the 4-4-2 diamond.
The decision to bench Ander Herrera, when he was clearly not fulfilling the defensive duties required by a van Gaal midfield.
The decision to play Daley Blind at centre back, when now the thought of breaking up his partnership with Smalling is unthinkable and he is the top assist maker in the country for a defender.
The decision to spend £36m on Anthony Martial, when now he is the best thing since sliced bread.
The decision to send Adnan Januzaj on loan, when he has had a torrid 12 months and both he and the club would benefit from him having an extended run of first team football.
Everything van Gaal does is done for a reason, nothing is left to chance. The problem of some fans however is their inability or lack of will to delve into the reasons behind his decisions. Louis van Gaal wants what we all want, United to win football matches in an attractive and attacking manner. Prior to temporarily silencing the lot who would have us play 4-4-2 every week, by reaching the top of the Premier League the latest good old moan that most of us have had to endure is why Juan Mata is playing on the right. The narrative is that he isn’t as effective offensively from a wide position because of his lack of pace and that he cannot beat a man. This has even led to the most absurd of calls for Ander Herrera to play on the right wing!
The simple facts of the matter are that Juan Mata IS effective from his wide spot, and that he doesn’t need to beat a man from the outside because it is simply not in his job description.
In 7 Premier League games this season, playing from the right, our little Spaniard has scored 3 goals and made 3 assists, add his contribution in the Champions League against Wolfsburg and its 4 goals and 4 assists this season in total. Last season, since the Crystal Palace game at home when he came on in the 63rd minute, he scored 7 goals and gave 4 assists in 25 games. His contribution when playing from the right wing is UNQUESTIONABLE. Yes Juan Mata is not the quickest, but he and the manager know this, and that is why you don’t see him trying to run down the line, he knows his strengths lie elsewhere. His intelligence and elusive nature allow him to drift infield and act as a secondary number 10. Looking at his touch map from Saturday with Sunderland, 26% of his touches were in that area at the top of the penalty area, that is pretty much where you would expect the number 10 to be right?
[See picture above]
Looking at other games this season, he is doing pretty much the same, with 45% and 51% of his touches coming in central areas in games against Liverpool and Southampton respectively. Just look at the space he had around him against Wolfsburg at the edge of the penalty area, enabling him to make that glorious assist for the Chris Smalling winner. This is no accident. Louis van Gaal knows what he is doing by playing Mata on the right, and only a relatively simple investigation into the possible reasons why can make things abundantly clear.
What enables Juan Mata to get the space and touches in central areas is that the opposing left back, the player that should traditionally be marking the right winger is left in a quandary. Does he drift infield and follow Mata, allowing for the Manchester United right sided midfielder (on occasion Herrera) or right back (a player with attacking instincts Antonio Valencia) to expose the empty space? Or does he prevent that and stay where he is on the wing, allowing Mata to remain unmarked? Since the player that would normally mark the number 10 (Wayne Rooney) is otherwise occupied, Mata has been getting this abundance of joy in central areas. Even if the opposition player switched from Rooney to Mata, that leaves United with the advantage of Wayne Rooney being free to cause damage.
I understand that the sight of Ryan Giggs, Lee Sharpe, Andrei Kanchelskis and Cristiano Ronaldo bombing it down the wing is a great sight, but those wingers didn’t have to face opposing teams that are willing to simply sit back to the degree that teams do these days. The defensive strategies of teams today are far more advanced than those of even a mere 10 years ago. So what good is pace when you have nowhere to run? That is why many of the top teams that face similar challenges to United, such as Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal have resorted to playing a different type of winger. Chelsea have Hazard, though who no slouch, his main skill is shooting and picking out a pass, the same can be said of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne of City, and Ozil at Arsenal.
All of that said, I await the next moan from those who are encouraged by the likes of Gary Neville and Paul Scholes who seem so allergic to giving van Gaal an iota of credit, even if it is so richly deserved. But as for this latest moan, either the Mata shaped peg DOES fit into a round hold, or the whole idea of distinctly shaped pegs and holes is simply wrong… I suspect van Gaal edges towards the latter, as do I.
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