By Piers Barber
1. Mata has given the entire club a much needed lift
The signing of Juan Mata has made it a giddy few days for Manchester United fans. An inconceivable signing this time last year, Mata has proved the most potent of tonics for both players and fanbase since the weekend. The former Chelsea man is clearly a class above his new teammates, with the returning Robin van Persie the obvious exception. Mata did not have the most dramatic of debuts, perhaps to be expected considering his lack of substantial playing time this year, but did pick up an assist for Ashley Young’s second goal and executed the impressive crossfield pass which led to van Persie’s first. Most encouragingly, he was always desperate for the ball and imaginative in his attempted passes, a breath of the freshest air for a team whose central midfield has been regularly filled with ball-shy players such as Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones this season. He received a standing ovation when he came off in the 83rd minute. “It was a very special day for me,” Mata said afterwards. “My debut, and a victory. It was perfect. I enjoyed it a lot.” You, Juan, can stay.
2. The extremely welcome return of United’s best players
With impeccable close control and irrepressible goal scoring instincts, Robin van Persie remains United’s best and most essential player. The Dutchman led United to the title almost singlehandedly last season, making it no surprise that his team have struggled without him because of injury this term. Thankfully, his goal, a clinical poacher’s take, proved he will not take long to settle back into the pace of life at Old Trafford, and the team’s fear factor benefitted from his return. Wayne Rooney also made his comeback and received a great ovation from the home crowd. Guilty of occasionally perhaps trying to shoot when he should have passed, he still exhibited a keenness to get on the ball and make something happen in the forward areas. He has been United’s best player of the season so far, but will face an increased challenge for his favoured position behind the striker now that Mata has arrived. Still, such a stiff competition for places could prove a very prosperous issue for Moyes to confront in the coming months.
3. Much work still needs doing on United’s tactical shape
There were points in the first half where the sheer degree of work still to be done on his new team’s squad seemed to dawn on the face of Juan Mata. Whatever their skills, Van Persie and Mata can’t win games on their own. They need a convincing central midfield pair (of which, for all their talents, a centre-back and a 40 year-old winger are not) to provide them with the ball, and a supporting attacking cast that does not position itself so far away from the front two. Despite their relatively bright displays, the touchline-hugging Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young often left Mata and van Persie a little too isolated up top, a problem which will need resolving if the £37 million spent on Mata is to be utilised most effectively. At some stage, Moyes must also work out a way to get the best out of a trio of Rooney, Mata and Adnan Januzaj playing behind Van Persie, no mean feat considering Mata’s reluctance to play on the wing and the importance United place on wingers who track back, a skill Valencia and Young largely perform admirably. United’s new attack certainly looks exciting, although it will require some delicate tactical orchestration from Moyes and his management team to maximise it’s possible threat.
4. The frustrating potential of Ashley Young
Ashley Young is the perfect player to pick for a game on FIFA. As a player possessing traits of rapid pace, skill and impressive shooting ability, when harnessed effectively on a video game he produces a highly threatening attacking prospect. Unfortunately for Manchester United, in real life Young’s decision making and confidence are entirely uncontrollable and unpredictable qualities, meaning he has consistently proved a disappointment on far more occasions than not throughout his career at Old Trafford. Moyes has persevered with Young longer than most managers would, and has been rewarded with a few moments of brilliance this season. His stunning run and shot which resulted in United’s second goal means Young will continue to be given opportunities this season. He could yet prove a few doubters wrong.
5. The return of a legend
Many former United players have returned to Old Trafford as managers of opposing teams, although few can have enjoyed as rich a reception as Cardiff’s new boss, United legendary former striker Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. Despite Mata’s debut and the returns of van Persie and Rooney, the Stretford End saved their greatest cheers for their former Norwegian hero, who was the subject of repeated joyous chanting throughout the game. Asked what the hardest part of his evening was after the game, Ole’s reported response, “not celebrating when United scored,” was typical of a true Old Trafford hero. After the game, United’s Rafael apparently asked Ole to take good care of his brother Fabio, who has moved to the Welsh club on a permanent basis as of this week. Yet Rafael clearly needn’t worry: under Ole, his brother will be in some of the safest hands around.
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