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Flipped Flops – have Fellaini and Mata turned things upside down at United?

In many ways, David Moyes’ time at Manchester United was like trying to watch a man with no thumbs grating jelly.

by Andrew Boulton | March 18, 2015

Although a manager with relative proven success, all he realistically brought to Old Trafford was his strange man-perm and the answer to the question ‘what would a man look like if he had the eyes of an elk?’.

He also brought (and/or bought) Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata which, until very recently, looked to have been the equivalent turning up to a new job with a cake made from desiccated mole anus.

However, hard as it may be for our eyes and minds to take it all in, those two players left the field towards the end of United’s 3-0 spanking of Spurs to standing ovations. More unsettling still is the fact that, if you and I would have been in the ground, we would probably have joined in.

Fellaini was the very embodiment of the thrusting box-to-box midfielder that earned him his reputation as a young player in Belgium. He took his goal with the kind of confidence many of us thought he’d swapped for a subscription to popular Belgian lads mag ‘Belgy Bants’. What’s more, his surprisingly non-elbowy penalty-box bullying also led directly to Michael Carrick’s goal.

Mata meanwhile stepped into the team almost entirely because Angel Di Maria had gotten all grabby with Michael Oliver’s jazzy yellow referee’s shirt. This was Mata’s first start for United since the 3-0 spanking of Cambridge in the FA Cup and rather than looking rusty he slipped into the team as naturally as something creepy and awkward slips out of Mark Lawrenson’s creepy and awkward mouth.

Playing as what your nan might call an ‘inside right’ he was at the heart of some sublime intricate passing with Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera in particular. The standing ovation for the tiny Spaniard was, by all accounts, a massive ‘told-you-so’ to a manager who had finally, and seemingly by accident, found a balanced midfield.

But if it’s the Moyes’ misfits who are gluing together a Manchester United team that, oddly, now only sit 2 points behind Manchester City in second, where does that leave the semi-galactico signings of Radamel Falcao and Di Maria?

For Falcao at least it seems increasingly clear that Louis van Gaal would love dearly to leave him unconscious in a burning canoe. But Di Maria, with a far heftier initial outlay, is surely too weighty an investment for Van Gaal to bundle into the back of a van and dump in a poorly-lit Little Chef car park.

But United now face a Liverpool side who have not dropped points at home since New Year’s Day, in what could be the most decisive game in the race for a top four (or even top two) finish. Even Louis van Gaal’s mythically well-proportioned balls must be quivering at the thought of breaking up a starting eleven that’s so emphatically united in every sense of the word.

Fellaini, Mata and Di Maria have all played a number of different positions this season, with no real conclusions about how or where they are most effective. The win at Tottenham changed all that, and an on-form Marouane Fellaini drifting unremittingly into dangerous spaces seems an obvious trade for a £58 million winger who often looks like he’d rather get his chin polished by Phil Bardsley than give his all to Manchester United.

Equally, freed from the uncompromising defensive demands of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, Mata starts to look like the player who can do more good floating around the front line than sprinting backwards for 80 yards so he can not tackle/badly tackle an overlapping full back.

There’s a reason why Liverpool’s climb into fifth is drawing more praise than United’s fairly steady presence in the top four – despite Liverpool and United both being amongst the top three teams in the Premier League form table. And the reason is that Brendan Rodgers is perceived to have found a system that, fairly ruthlessly, balances his squad’s qualities, while Van Gaal spends his days scribbling notes into a little book and making sure Ryan Giggs isn’t texting pictures of unidentifiably hairy body parts to any unsupervised wives.

But it’s still hard to imagine this is one of the trickier decisions Van Gaal has ever had to make. Given the choice between a thriving, forward-thinking Fellaini, an unwaveringly crafty Mata and a plodding Di Maria, most of us would know which choices to make. So don’t be surprised if the big Dutch rascal does precisely the opposite. Perhaps it’s time to send Bardsley round.

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