From the moment he signed, last night was always going to be about a man and one man only: Juan Mata.
The atmosphere as he entered the pitch was one of febrile anticipation, one we hadn’t witnessed at Old Trafford since Robin Van Persie made his debut in a red shirt last season and while the expectations were only partly met, Mata’s first game for United was a largely positive one.
Considering that he hadn’t played for almost a month and that our midfield comprised a 40-year-old man, a centre-back deployed in a central midfield role and two wingers who do everything wingers shouldn’t do, Mata did reasonably well, even though he flickered only occasionally and seemed some way off of grabbing the game by the scruff of its neck.
The pass that started the move that led to the first goal was outstanding and Mata’s eagerness to combine with Van Persie – and Rooney when he came on – was pleasing to see, but the sooner United ditch their archaic 4-4-2, the sooner Mata will settle into the team.
United’s record signing is at his best when he can deliver short, sharp passes to like-minded players, rather than when he’s surrounded by acres of space with no teammates in sight. Still, he definitely lifted the fans and his teammates and there’s definitely more to come.
2) Welcome back, Robin
It took Robin Van Persie just six minutes to show us what we’d been missing over the last 11 games – a striker who only needs a chance to get on the scoresheet and one with the ability to participate to the build-up play, thus involving his teammates into the game and facilitate their lives.
RVP’s return provided a calmly influence in the final third of the pitch, something Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, for all their qualities, have delivered only intermittently during the Dutchman’s absence and seeing Van Persie on the team sheet seemed to galvanise the fans as much as it lifted the team.
Speaking of lifts, Robin had never looked so happy this season as he did when he linked up with Mata and he looked genuinely pleased simply at having the Spaniard entering the pitch alongside him. Promising signs all around.
3) A soft core
Those who thought Mata’s arrival would solve our midfield problems, were left bitterly disappointed last night. At best, the former Chelsea man can masquerade the staggering paucity of midfield options at David Moyes’ disposal, at worst the shambles that duly unfold in United’s middle third could stifle Mata’s attacking skills.
With Adnan Januzaj and Wayne Rooney on the bench, Moyes didn’t take the tactical leap many expected and wanted him to take as he set United out in a 4-5-1 formation, with Mata roaming behind RVP, while Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones were tasked with patrolling the middle of the pitch and Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia spent 90 minutes hugging the touchlines.
Valencia and Young were their usual mono-dimensional selves, but while the latter at least scored a cracking goal and whipped in the odd interesting cross, Valencia was at his frustrating best, ponderous in possession and scared to take his man on, let alone getting to the byline and put a cross in.
The feeling is that Moyes wants to move towards a 4-2-3-1 formation with Januzaj, Rooney and Mata behind RVP but to do that he needs two quality midfielders given that, of the current crop, only Carrick can be trusted in that role. Freeing the team from the shackles of 4-4-2 could finally spell the end for Young and Valencia, neither of whom, hard as they might try, is United quality.
On the other hand, for the first time this season, United have been able to make like-for-like substitutions in terms of quality, as Rooney replaced Van Persie and Mata departed for Januzaj. A small step, perhaps, but definitely one in the right direction.
4) Attack, attack, attack
After the game, Moyes spoke of how he had hoped for a better performance and that he wanted his men to go for a third goal, rather than sit back and control the game.
Moyes’ attitude was refreshing given the terribly dire stuff we’ve played this season and supported the thought that we will, gradually, see a different and more attacking United, once Moyes has brought in the players he wants and deems necessary to improve our squad.
While last night was hardly the sort of game that will live long in memory, United looked more fluid than they had done in the majority of games this season and they finally started a game on the front of foot, like they were used to. That Van Persie’s goal was the first time United scored in the first 25 minutes of a Premier League game at Old Trafford this season spoke volume of how much ground we still have to cover.
It was heartwarming to see Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being welcomed to such a fantastic reception at Old Trafford and it was exactly what Ole deserved.
One gets the feeling that by choosing Cardiff, Ole might have jumped straight into the dragon’s den – pardon the pun – but it was also hard to think that, at some stage, he will not return to United. Suggesting he should replace Moyes it’s simply ludicrous given his limited managerial experience, but don’t bet against Ole returning to his spiritual home in the future.
You wonder, if he had the same thoughts as “You’re my Soslkjaer” thundered around the ground.