Take away the names Juan Mata and Manchester United and simply describe the bare bones of what just happened in the Premier League transfer market and it becomes hard, not to say impossible, to understand why the business David Moyes has just conducted isn’t being heralded with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahhs’ of appreciation.
Gary Neville and Paul Merson each made it clear that they doubt either the need or the wisdom of this move, admittedly without specifically putting Mata’s quality in doubt.
But this is what’s just happened.
A rich, hugely competitive rival with a deep, immensely talented and experienced squad has just been maneuvered into selling a reigning world and European champion player who has played exceptionally since moving to England, winning six club, country and individual trophies in those two years, and selling to a rival which desperately needed a leg up.
What’s that eternal hard-nosed saying about ‘never give a sucker an even break’?
Moreover, and this is the key theme, the player being sold to a direct rival embodies all the elements which that rival desperately needed — both in match-winning terms and just about every single other facet which makes a ‘great’ footballer in today’s horribly inflated market.
Ed Woodward’s difficulties
Long before it’s important to begin to say ‘how will he fit if Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are both fit?’ or, the still more inane, ‘they needed a central midfielder or a left back as a higher priority?’ the key thing to look at is what made the purchase a phenomenally good piece of business.
Firstly, and no matter whether United fans who are suffering extreme pain at the team’s current performance give this any credit or not, the market has been an extremely difficult place for United to do business once it proved that Ed Woodward was only cutting his teeth in the summer.
- In the lead-up to this market United’s scouts have done detailed work on up to 35 players. Mostly with a view to signing the right player at the right age for the right money this summer, but also to try and address the club’s current deficiencies.
- David Moyes gave the go-ahead for a direct club to club enquiry for Marko Reus (below) of Borussia Dortmund but the idea got tangled up in what price it would take to get the player now and what price when a contractual clause kicks in this summer.
So, who else is on the shopping list?
Alex Song was another player the United manager rated highly and was willing to move for but, like Diego Costa and left back Felipe Luis, the possibility of completing a deal isn’t something Barcelona or Atlético Madrid are willing to contemplate until the summer, at least.
Edinson Cavani, too, is potentially buyable, not being hugely impressed at having to play wide in Laurent Blanc’s Autumn-instituted 4-3-3 formation in order to accommodate Zlatan at centre forward. But, again, the potential for that to happen when PSG are tilting at a league and Champions League double is next to zero right now – different come May/June.
United are, right now, trying to make a deal for Luke Shaw happen irrespective of the player’s affiliation for Chelsea. Whether Shaw thinks he wants to work with Moyes right now or jockey for position when there might be a queue of clubs in the summer is an interesting dilemma which might not favour the reigning champions.
All of this is to emphasise that if anyone was confused that Mata was bought, instead of a ball-winning, organising central midfielder, a centre back or a left back then it’s important to understand that when quality becomes available you snap it up — even if that means a rescheduling of priorities.
So, back to Mata.
United need more ‘cojones’
I don’t think that anyone, not even United’s harshest critic this season, would say that the squad is without talent.
But they’ve lacked edge, flair, confidence. ‘Cojones’ they’d say in Spain.
The Ferguson-United ethos that ‘no odds are too great’, ‘no team will desire the win more than us’ — they seem to have evaporated to a great deal.
At this early stage I judge it harsh to be laying culpability for that at the door of David Moyes. I’ve seen it happen twice before here in Spain.
- Once when Rafa Benitez (above), an immensely demanding task master and someone who was inordinately attentive to every single detail of daily work, departed you could hear the collective sigh of ‘we can let our belts out now’ from the Valencia squad. Those who had chafed under his yoke, those who gave more because he demanded so much from them every hour of every day (yielding the most productive trophy spell in Valencia’s history) relaxed. Consciously or subconsciously.
- The same happened when Pep Guardiola left Barcelona. Ask any of his players, any single one, and they’ll admit that he was ‘pesado‘. It means he could be a right pain in the backside. On their backs all the time: over diet, over intensity in training, over lifestyle, over how early they went to bed at night — he even swore crudely at Alexis Sanchez right in front of live TV cameras at match when the Chilean broke down injured right after coming back from international duty.
Standards have slipped
When Guardiola left, burned out, this fabulous group of players also let standards slip. Very marginally, but it had an effect. Just for comparison, Guardiola was at Barcelona for four years, Benitez for three — Ferguson, you may recall, at United for 27.
There has been a patently evident relaxation. More than one squad and staff member at United has mentioned it to to me.
Mata (pictured above in 2009 with Valencia) brings a great deal beyond his evident playing skills.
Knowing him, having watched him train day in day out for two months with Spain at World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 I can tell you that his work ethic is voracious.
Whether he’s in the team or not each training session is treated like life or death. Whether he’s in the starting XI or not every colleague is to be helped, encouraged, chided — made better.
Mata is a team player.
Sometimes, particularly when there is a ‘losing’ dynamic confidence, arrogance, self-belief, luck… evaporate more quickly than snow in an oven.
Mata’s purchase holds a key to re-establishing some of those.
Depending on whether David Moyes retains his preference for 4-2-3-1 Mata can play in any, and I mean every one, of the front four positions.
Might that mean Wayne Rooney having to move left on occasion if Mata plays int he No10 role? It might.
Would that be the end of the world? Hardly.
Is Mata more likely to play wide left in that formation? Yes.
But if Moyes moved to 4-3-3 Mata could also play in any of the front three positions if, tactically, that was required of him.
RVP desperate to win Champions League
Moreover, what I fail to understand about those who first carp about the need for Mata based on the presence of RVP and Rooney is the following: how often have the two of them been fit together this season? How guaranteed is it that United can seal this new contract which, admittedly, Rooney has indicated he’s interested in? Also, Van Persie told me how centrally important it is for him to win the Champions League. In all good faith, if he sees that as being a distant prospect with United then is he at Old Trafford for the remainder of his career… or not?
Now the fans. They don’t win matches but they can certainly help to contribute to a ‘malaise’ at a club which is starting to drift… or to challenge, no DEMAND, more from players who have begun to coast.
What’s needed for the positive side of that equation is something to rally round, to believe in.
Mata gives them that. Instinctively, I guarantee, he’ll give the most loyal and passionate United fans a work ethic, a commitment to winning, a style and a sporting aggression which they will recognize as what they’d apply if they were playing. He’s a rallying point.
Others, around him, will need to respond and work harder.
Another positive facet of this deal centres on David de Gea. Excluding that horrible fumble in the League Cup semi final against Sunderland last week the Spanish keeper has been a success. Last season he’d have been assessed as a central part of the title win.
Right now there are sufficient rumours circulating about how happy he is to renew his deal at United, rather than perhaps replace Thibaut Courtois back at Atlético Madrid, that it’s worth the club focussing hard on him.
If he’s content, if his development continues and given the other re-building priorities at the club it would heavily suit United not to have to start thinking about buying a new keeper.
De Gea and Mata played together in a winning European U21 Spain side and the striker’s arrival will clearly signify to his countryman that the club mean to respond to the current slump.
The two men get on, it’s a positive step and you’d not bet against another Spaniard joining them.
Of the U21 squad which won their Euro in 2011 De Gea, Ander Herrera, Thiago, Javi Martinez and Juan Mata made Uefa’s All-Star squad.
United have now bought two — bid for Ander and Thiago while Javi Martinez remains the absolute stand-out player United missed when Bayern nipped in to wrench him away from Athletic Bilbao. IF he doesn’t get sufficient game time in Pep Guardiola’s midfield, don’t rule out an offer from Old Trafford for the fabulous ball winning midfielder.
So, all of this. All these myriad reasons why the Mata deal is super business plus the basic fact that this is a fabulous footballer who will, when United are in a penalty shoot out against Sunderland or when they are poised at 1-1 at home against Cardiff in the FA Cup, produce winning goals and assists.
Whether Jose Mourinho (above) and Chelsea go on to deeply regret the sale is, given their squad, a moot point. But all of United’s rivals from this week forward most certainly will.
- Agree with Graham’s view on Juan Mata? Let us know in the comments section…
— Wes Walsh (@weswalsh1) January 28, 2014
— S (@Fan88Football) January 28, 2014
— Billy Horan (@wjhoran) January 28, 2014
— Des Vertannes (@DMSV) January 28, 2014
— kevin lewis (@kevinlewis99) January 28, 2014