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Analysis: How Louis Van Gaal can use both Mata and Rooney effectively this season

Can Louis Van Gaal get the best out of Rooney and Mata this season?

Mata and Rooney in talks during Tuesday's friendly against Valencia.
Mata and Rooney in talks during Tuesday's friendly against Valencia.
Image: Martin Rickett

WHEN HE WAS signed for £37million in January there was an optimism among Manchester United fans that Juan Mata could be the player to turn things around for David Moyes.

That transpired not to be the case, but through the fault of Moyes himself and not the Spanish playmaker.

Mata’s best position is the number 10 role behind a striker or a pair of strikers. He earned two consecutive Chelsea Player of the Year Awards during his time at Stamford Bridge, when he was consistently used in his favoured position.

During his spell in London he had the second highest number of assists of any Premier League player (27) behind David Silva, and netted 18 goals, meaning he was involved in 45 goals over two and a half seasons.

The 26-year-old (two years younger than Wayne Rooney. Yes, really.) is a classic playmaker who performs at his best when give a free role between the midfield and the forward line.

Moyes’ tactic of employing Mata out wide didn’t work partly because he doesn’t have the speed to beat a full-back and fire crosses into the box but also because his passing vision is better used in the middle of the pitch, where he can see the play in front of him thus allowing him to feed wingers and strikers.

During his Chelsea days it was a familiar sight to see Mata dropping as deep as the halfway line to pick up the ball, allowing other players to get ahead of him, therefore providing him with options for penetrating passes.

In the screenshot below we can see Mata picking up the ball in such a position, allowing Ramires to get ahead of him and support the striker. If Mata is played centrally this season we can expect to see such a scenario occurring multiple times with Ander Herrera bursting through the middle.

Mata Chelsea Mata is at his best when he can see the play ahead of him. Source: Mathews Okeyo via YouTube

The 3-5-2 formation that Van Gaal has been using so far in pre-season would also suit this scenario with Mata playing just ahead of Carrick and Herrera and behind Van Persie and Rooney.

A problem for United however could be the fact that Rooney also loves to do exactly the same as Mata and drop deep. Ideally Rooney could be played as an out-and-out centre forward, alongside Robin Van Persie, allowing Mata the space in behind the strikers.

But as we know Rooney is not a player to alter his playing style. The 28-year-old consistently drops deep in search of the ball, doing exactly the job Mata is ideally suited to. While Rooney is happy to play up front when United are in control of a game, frustration can get the better of him when he receives less of the ball leading to him dropping into the hole.

One of David Moyes’ finer moments in charge of the Red Devils last season was a 4-0 win over Newcastle United at St James’ Park in April. This was one of the few games where Mata was played as a proper number 10 and it worked perfectly.

Lineup v Newcastle Here we can see Mata employed in his preferred position. Source: www.lineupbuilder.com

From looking at the lineup above however we can see that Rooney was absent for the game. This meant that Mata played behind Javier Hernandez, a much more ‘on the shoulder of the last defender’ type of striker. Hernandez’s darting runs allowed Mata to feed him in on a number of occasions, eventually leading to a goal. The positioning of Hernandez also allowed Mata more space in which to advance and the Spaniard made full use of it, netting two goals.

Three weeks later United met Norwich City at home in Ryan Giggs’ first game in charge. Giggs started Mata on the bench for this one, preferring to play Rooney just off Hernandez. With The Reds 2-0 up after an hour Mata was brought off the bench and played in behind Rooney and Hernandez, as seen in the lineup below.

Lineup v Norwich One of the few occasions where Mata was played behind Rooney. And it worked. Source: www.lineupbuilder.com

With United 2-0 up already Rooney was content to play higher up the pitch and again it worked as Mata scored twice within thirteen minutes of coming on.

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In contrast, a month earlier United had played Liverpool at Anfield, losing 3-0 in what was a dreadful performance from David Moyes’ charges. In that particular game Mata had been moved out to the right wing, where he was much less effective.

Lineup v Liverpool Mata in a less effective role out wide. Source: www.lineupbuilder.com

Mata failed to create one goalscoring chance against Liverpool and had less touches (73) than in the Newcastle game (89). The former Valencia players lack of pace meant that he had to keep cutting inside, impeding on Rooney’s space and dulling the effect of both players on the game.

But Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney are two intelligent players. On their day they are two of the very best players in the world. Therefore they should be able to work it between them to occasionally allow Mata to drift ahead of Rooney if he wants to drop a bit deeper. The screenshot below shows such a scenario where Rooney and Mata link up well, the ball eventually falling to Fellaini who’s shot from the edge of the box is well saved. There is no reason to suggest why players of such immense talent can’t regularly combine in such a way.

Rooney dropping behind Mata Rooney dropping behind Mata. Source: PremierProdHD via YouTube

The attacking options at the disposal of Van Gaal are without a doubt good enough to win the Premier League. However, it is up to the Dutchman to use them correctly in order to feel the full effects.

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About the author:

Ruaidhri Croke

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