Juan Mata’s transfer from Chelsea to Manchester United has been met with a mixed reaction, somewhat surprisingly. A substantial proportion of United fans are more than a little skeptical about the move, citing the hefty reported transfer fee of £37million and more pressing concerns in other areas of the side. However, David Moyes has been presented with the rare opportunity to purchase a world-class operator in the mid-season window and has rightly taken it.
Many fans feel that the Mata money should be reserved for in reinforcements in other areas. Michael Carrick’s most recent injury merely intensifies David Moyes’ already desperate need to strengthen in the central midfield area, while Patrice Evra’s persistent poor form makes the purchase of a new left-back a matter of urgency. However, both Moyes, in press conferences, and myself, on this website, have previously acknowledged the difficulties of bringing in players of suitable quality in the frenzy of the January transfer market. With Leighton Baines set to sign a new contract at Everton, Luke Shaw moving closer to a big-money summer move to Chelsea and Carlo Ancelotti’s “nobody in, nobody out” declaration thwarting any potential swoop for Fabio Coentrao, United will almost certainly have to wait until the summer to procure a new left back.
Meanwhile, Yohan Cabaye has emerged as the stand-out candidate to revitalise the Red Devils’ engine room, due to some outstanding recent performances. It cannot be disputed that the Frenchman would address a more glaring weakness in the United side, but he does not possess Mata’s aura. In a similar way to Mesut Özil’s arrival at Arsenal, the former Chelsea playmaker’s arrival will galvanise every single Manchester United fan and player, not to mention beleaguered manager, David Moyes, moving towards the business end of the season. Despite its more economical (but still not cheap) and practical nature, a move for Cabaye would not have the same overall effect on the club. In any case, many sources have reported that the Glazer family are prepared to grant Moyes a transfer kitty in excess of £100million, so there is no reason why both Cabaye and Mata will not both be Red Devils by February 1st. Such a double purchase would be expensive, but so would missing out on next season’s Champions League.
It has also been suggested, most prominently by ex-Red Gary Neville, that Mata does not fit in with the Manchester United philosophy. It is likely that this refers to United’s historical preference for natural wide-players, who provide a constant supply of quality crosses, contrasted with Mata’s strength with regards cutting inside to play more precise through-balls or shooting. However, it is easy to overstate this point. Adnan Janujaz (who himself has been stationed in a central role recently) is United’s first left footed left-winger since Ryan Giggs’ reincarnation as a central midfielder, with Nani, Ji Sung Park and Wayne Rooney among the array of right-footers who have filled the role in recent years.
David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo were the Red Devils’ two most potent right-sided weapons of the last decade, but stylistically, they could not be much more different. Mata has his own unique style of unlocking defences, based on exceptional movement and vision, which will be a much needed boost to David Moyes, as he endeavours to engineer a return to United’s winning traditions. Furthermore, maverick players, who can inspire a team to victory with their individual brilliance, are also engrained in United history. Eric Cantona, Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes, not to mention Ronaldo and Beckham, are just some examples of superstars capable of turning a match in the Reds’ favour and Mata is not out of place in such esteemed company.
There have also been question marks over where Mata fits into this current United side, which, on the face of it, seems rather bizarre. Adnan Januzaj, who is still just 18, and Wayne Rooney are the only two members of David Moyes’ outfield playing staff to have impressed this season and the former Valencia man can occupy a central attacking role just as comfortably as one on the flanks. Given Rooney’s current absence through injury, Mata will likely make his United bow in his reportedly preferred “Number 10? position, allowing Januzaj to return to the left flank. While the Brussels-born starlet has impressed during his recent spell in a central area, his penalty miss against Sunderland provided a timely reminder of his tender years, and he will doubtless benefit from Mata sharing the creative burden. Upon Rooney’s return, the Liverpudlian will likely play centrally, flanked by Mata and Januzaj, in support of a lone striker. With one of the left-footed wide-men likely to prefer cutting inside, this would represent a stylistic change, but one that should be welcome. David Moyes has shown a surprising loyalty to crossing this season, given the lackluster contributions from wide areas and the lack of an aerial presence in the penalty area. This approach has been largely unsuccessful, and has rightly drawn widespread criticism. Moreover, since the 2009 departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, there has been a feeling that United require more subtlety (some may say pure quality) in their attacking play, and Mata’s arrival would certainly facilitate that, as well as a much-needed alternative to a barrage of unsuccessful crosses.
David Moyes has been desperate to transform the fortunes of his new charges, but has so far failed to do so. The purchase of Mata; somewhat startling given that the sellers are English counterparts Chelsea, gives him an opportunity to do just that. Arsenal’s position at the peak of the Premier League serves to illustrate the magnitude of the effect signing a world-class player can have on the entirety of a football club, having been boosted by the September signing of Mesut Özil. The Gunners began the season with a defeat as humbling as any suffered by United this season; a 3-1 reverse at home to Aston Villa. The result left players looking for inspiration, fans despondent and Arsene Wenger cutting an increasingly frustrated figure on the touchline. The £42.5m capture of the German maestro transformed the mood of the entire club and, similarly, just as important as Mata’s performances on the pitch is likely to be the galvanising effect his arrival will have on everyone linked with Manchester United. The players, too many of whom are currently underperforming, will feel a new enthusiasm for the task at hand. The fans, currently frustrated by their side’s lack of inspiration, will have a new magician to hail, likely in the legendary Number 7 shirt. And, boy, does David Moyes need a boost? Moyes has so far been the man who took United to seventh place, the man whose shambolic summer transfer activity culminated in the disastrous purchase of Marouane Fellaini and the man who oversaw the disintegration of Sir Alex Ferguson’s dynasty. Now he is the man who has broken Manchester United’s transfer record, to make a truly world-class acquisition, from a domestic rival. The signing of Juan Mata, which may well be swiftly followed by others, signals that Moyes’ quest to rebuild Manchester United has begun in earnest.