As derby day defeats go Sunday’s sits somewhere in the middle on the scale of how much it makes you want to curl up in the foetal position and sob hysterically. It wasn’t the fact United lost at the Etihad for the first time in four years which was hard to take, it was the fact the game acted as an unnecessary indicator of how the two club’s fortunes have differed over the past 18 months or so. One team has had reinvestment to the hilt, a clear vision and philosophy that’s been stuck to rigidly, the other has refused to go the whole hog in the transfer market, while adopting a scattergun approach tactically which veers from pragmatic to gung-ho depending on the situation.
In the previous Etihad Manchester derby United’s haphazard approach had prevailed with the first 45 minutes representing how inept some of our defenders can be while the second half showcased the side’s attacking talent. On Sunday there was no such reprieve from the early match malaise the Reds found themselves in, with City dominant for roughly 75 minutes of the 90 and an Anthony Martial penalty the only shot on target United could muster.
When the teams were announced there was more than a fair amount of scepticism from United fans as to whether a midfield consisting of Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic could provide the service needed for the Reds’ attack.
One player who could have given United the ammunition to at least make the City defence break sweat is the same one who sparked the revivals against Newcastle and Juventus, the same one who was instrumental in the Reds leaving Stamford Bridge with a point.
Juan Mata may have been introduced to the action with just 17 minutes left on the clock, but it was hardly enough time to regain the initiative from a City side that was becoming increasingly dominant, verging on the cusp of rampant.
Jose Mourinho opted for a midfield triumvirate that was based solely on preventing City’s playmakers get a foothold in the game, with scant thought given to how United were expected to get the ball to the likes of Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.
We’ve seen at Stamford Bridge, Mata can operate in a midfield three and with Paul Pogba absent, it made even less sense to deprive the team from one of the few other players in United’s side that can reasonably make a claim of being world class. In a season of strange decisions this was up there with the time Phil Jones was put on corner taking duties and Wayne Rooney was tasked with a defensive midfield role.
The fact Mata only played the final 15 minutes in Turin so wouldn’t have been struggling with fitness makes Mourinho’s decision to leave him on the bench for over an hour even more baffling. At a time when United are becoming increasingly reliant on Pogba to provide any form of spark in midfield, leaving out the only other player capable of filling the Labile shaped void, is simply inviting a defeat, one that was duly delivered.
United simply cannot afford to keep ignoring Mata, or using him sparingly, he needs to be featuring as regularly for United as he was when he arrived or when he was at Chelsea. Here’s a player who can play in the midfield three Jose favours so much or as part of the team’s attacking trio, yet he’s often on the bench while the likes of Fellaini and Lingard who are always capable of putting a shift in, simply don’t possess anywhere near the former Valencia man’s talents, yet are often preferred to Mata.
The argument against Mata starting regularly is the fact Mourinho prefers fast, more physically imposing players than Mata, with the likes of Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial fitting into that mould and therefore enabling the sort of football the manager prefers – or is at least supposed to.
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Cast your eye over to the City squad and you’ll see how successive managers have utilised the talents of David Silva, who’s been used as a winger, off the striker and mainly as a midfielder where he’s able to give the likes of Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling the type of service other attackers can only dream of. It doesn’t matter if City use a striker like Eden Dzeko or Aguero, whether they’re playing through the middle via Kevin De Bruyne or out wide with Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane, Silva helps make them tick – because his manager(s) understands his importance.
Mata is a player who’s consistently created chances for his team mates, he has 49 assists in 148 Premier League games for United and Chelsea, he’s also capable of scoring goals, with a record of one in every four games that puts him on a par with almost any of the top midfielders on the planet.
Pogba may be the midfield ‘star’ of the show and while his ability can not be denied, there’s no denying when he’s bad he’s very bad and seems to let his frustrations get the better of him at times, a criticism you could never level at the nice guy Juan.
Mourinho has never truly trusted Mata, Chelsea fans were baffled as to why he didn’t see the value in not just keeping but playing the two-time player of the year, instead preferring the far less consistent Oscar.
At a time when the fans are calling for more flair, and his side has just been embarrassed by a team that are in danger of dominating the Premier League in a manner that would make Sir Alex Ferguson blush, maybe it’s time Mourinho turned to the one man who’s talents have never been in question, nor his attitude.