Juan Mata’s Manchester United debut against Cardiff City on Tuesday night ended in a 2-0 victory but looking past their confident exterior, there were lingering signs of an incomplete unit. The Spaniard’s inclusion is certainly a vital piece of the jigsaw but the puzzle is far from being solved.
Even with the return of Robin van Persie and the first appearance of Mata, United didn’t blow Cardiff away in front of an excited and expectant Old Trafford crowd. In fact, for long periods in the game, the hosts seemed to labour through proceedings and even endured the occasional goal-mouth scare in their own penalty box.
Mata enjoyed a decent debut and played a part in both goals. He spread a diagonal ball wide to Patrice Evra who laid it off for Ashley Young to whip in a cross. Antonio Valencia’s header crashed off the bar before Van Persie’s header was saved by the keeper only for the Dutchman to nod it in at the second time of asking to give United the lead after five minutes of play.
Van Persie got United underway
For the second goal, it was the Spaniard’s pass to Young that saw the Englishman drift inside and unleash a spectacular shot from range that nestled in the far corner. But even though Mata was dubbed United’s ‘creative hub’, the truth is that he was far from his best. Of course, that’s to be expected when joining a new team and building a relationship with new teammates but the absence of a quality central midfielder once again shone through.
Admittedly, United’s central midfield issues, like a broken record, have been sounded repeatedly for far too long but when a 40 year-old Ryan Giggs and center-back in Phil Jones start in the middle of the park for one of the most famous clubs in world football, that particular shortcoming is simply unavoidable.
Without a midfield general to really dictate play, Mata constantly dropped deep in search of the ball. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the returning Old Trafford hero and current Cardiff boss, set up his side well and remained compact for the most part, rarely affording Mata any kind of space in the final third.
A fine debut for Mata
|Mata's debut in numbers|
Ultimately, the Spaniard’s influence was not rendered obsolete because he still managed to create a few chances but he was nevertheless contained to a large degree. He may have executed more passes than any other player in a red shirt on the night but 52 is hardly a number that suggests domination. It’s far from the 100-mark Paul Scholes reached on several occasions.
Of course, Mata technically plays in a more advanced role and his number of passes is less to do with his own performance and more to do with United’s midfield. Even though he was credited with an assist for the second goal, it was really only a routine pass out wide and only facilitated the hyping up of his and the team’s performance.
Make no mistake, Mata did well in his first game and there’s not a lot more you could have asked from his individual effort but there’s also more to be gained from his services by introducing a classy midfielder to compliment him. That’s where the Red Devils missed Michael Carrick yet again, someone to pick out Mata in a dangerous position instead of the Spaniard having to drop deep for a touch.
Mata 'assisted' United's second goal
In the last few days, United have been linked with a move for one of Bayern Munich’s several midfield stars, Toni Kroos. With the German’s contract expiring next year, David Moyes would do well to swoop in at the opportune moment and strengthen his side ahead of their charge for a top four spot.
Van Persie and Mata’s presence made sure that United would create chances against Cardiff and they will only be stronger when the duo are played in tandem with Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj from the start. With that frontline, they may well go on to claim a Champions League spot but to make it more of a certainty a central midfield addition would do just fine.
"Van Persie and Mata operating ahead of United’s make-shift midfield was like the icing on a half-baked cake"
In truth, the class of Van Persie and Mata operating ahead of United’s make-shift midfield was like the icing on a half-baked cake. In fairness, Moyes stated after the game that even though he was pleased with the win, there’s a long way to go before his vision of how he wants his team to play comes to life. So he’s fully aware that this is not yet a trademark United team in spite of a record signing, the question is whether he will chose to improve that sooner rather than later.
|"Don't think because I have won tonight I'm smiling and happy. With the vision I have got for the club we have got a long way to go"
- David Moyes
There’s not long to go before the January transfer window slams shut and as pleased as every United fan is to recruit a star like Mata, they only have to look at Liverpool’s 4-0 demolition of Everton in the Merseyside derby to realize the need for further reinforcements. On the other hand, it would be nice if Moyes did sign a central midfielder if for no other reason than to give us something else to talk about.
|Do United need a midfielder in this window? Send in your thoughts in the comments below or discuss with the writer on Twitter @BrendonNetto.|
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