By Jamie Dunn
Juan Mata may have proved surplus to requirements for Jose Mourinho and his industrious Chelsea side, but the Spain international is the perfect player to inject some much-needed creativity back into Manchester United.
Mata found himself on the fringes at Stamford Bridge under Mourinho, who favoured the trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and summer signing Willian, all of whom displayed a willingness to press and win the ball back at the first available opportunity.
“Juan has to learn to play the way I want to play,” the Chelsea boss said after leaving Mata out of the squad for a victory over Fulham in September. “He has to be more consistent, he has to be more participative when the team lose possession.”
While United have their fair share of issues at the back, it is a playmaker they so sorely need rather than an auxiliary defender, particularly in the continued absence of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, having been comfortably outscored by each side in the top four so far this season.
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Much of the attacking responsibility has also fallen on the shoulders of Adnan Januzaj, an 18-year-old star in the making who has started five of the last six games in all competitions, but prior to this season, had not made a single first team appearance.
And while the teenager has scored three goals - including a vital match-winning double against Sunderland in October - provided three assists and created 18 chances, the Belgian-born forward would surely benefit from having a player with the class of Mata in close proximity.
United’s other creative players have simply failed to live up to their potential. Shinji Kagawa has been afforded chances under David Moyes but was most recently hauled off after an uninspiring hour in the dramatic Capital One Cup exit to Sunderland, while Tom Cleverley trails Rooney (332), Valencia and Michael Carrick (both 315) for passes in the final third (276). Anderson – the Brazilian who joined the club in a big-money deal from Porto in 2007 - has been loaned to Fiorentina.
Chris Smalling, a defender by trade, has created seven chances from open play for United this season - more than Cleverley, Kagawa, Anderson, Ashley Young, Ryan Giggs and the injury-hit pair of Van Persie and Marouane Fellaini.
Mata’s own numbers this season have been less than impressive. The Spaniard has started just 11 games in all competitions, and his struggles with Mourinho’s system are evident in his lack of goals and just two assists over a total of 834 minutes played.
But the 2012-13 campaign was a different story, as he created 95 chances - the fourth highest total in the Premier League. United’s highest totals came courtesy of Van Persie (70) and Rooney (49).
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It is evident that without Rooney and Van Persie, United have struggled to create, but with both players back in training and Mata arriving in time for the bulk of the second half of the season, Moyes will have a variety of options at his disposal.
The fashionable choice could see Moyes abandon the conventional width offered by the wingers, Valencia and Young, and instead opt to play Mata, Rooney and Januzaj as an attacking three behind Van Persie or Danny Welbeck.
Alternatively, Van Persie, Rooney and Welbeck could form a front three with a midfield trio of Mata, the returning Fellaini and Phil Jones or Tom Cleverley, in the absence of Carrick, who is likely to miss a month of action with an injury.
There are a number of possibilities for Moyes and United who, with the addition of Mata, no longer need to rely on their strikers – Rooney and Van Persie – to lead the way in creating chances and instead focus on putting the ball in the back of the net.
Mourinho may have been less than enamoured with Mata’s ability to press, and the decision to sell him continues to baffle some Chelsea fans despite their Premier League position, but United are set to reap the benefits of a supremely talented player.