Juan Mata’s debut provides hope, leaves questions unanswered for Manchester United

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Had Manchester United kept their $61 million and left Juan Mata on Chelsea’s bench, today’s match against Cardiff may have played out the same way. At least, 2-0 sounds about right. You had the Premier League’s seventh placed team hosting its bottom dwellers, with one of the league’s best goal scorers returning to the home team’s lineup. A two-goal victory is par for the course in these situations.

Mata still made an impression, though. As a focal point above midfield, he provided a level of composure we’re not used to seeing from a Red Devils playmaker. We’re used to the energy of Wayne Rooney, who has excelled this season in that role. Lately, we’re used to the potential of Adnan Januzaj – talent that hints he mat yet be better as a wide-to-in player. With Mata, however, the Red Devils have a number 10 with the patience to let a play develop, something that should mesh well with Rooney’s bombast and Robin Van Persie’s movement.

That patience was evident mid-way through the first half, when the Spanish international pulled up along the right flank and let his runners fly into the box. Moments later, he found Ashley Young attacking the far post for a should-have-been goal.

To a lesser extent, that patience was also evident on his team’s first goal, with Mata electing to chip a ball wide left rather than force something through on the right. Patrice Evra and Ashley Young eventually created the goal Van Persie would score, with Mata having flooded the box to help overwhelm United’s opposition.

Expect to hear the phrase “foot on the ball” a lot over the next few days, because that’s exactly the impression Mata gave. With his acquisition, United finally have a guy who can control plays as well as make them – somebody who can take advantage of the movement he’ll get from his two star forwards.

We knew this about Mata when he arrived, but after half a season languishing at Chelsea, it was nice be reminded. It was refreshing to have somebody so important to the last two years of Premier League soccer back on the field. He didn’t get shipped back to Spain. He didn’t stay packed away in the Chelsea dressing room. The same guy who posted 30 assists over the last two league seasons has been saved – by Manchester United, no less.

Red Devils’ supporters have to be fired up. This is the high point of their season. After five months of middling results and fight amongst themselves about whether David Moyes is okay, bad, or horrible, there’s now another focus. Maybe there’ll be no title race this year, but the team’s Champions League hopes are still alive. And promising to play a more creative brand of soccer than has been offered since May, United may yet again be fun to watch. It wasn’t quite there on Tuesday, but the promise was.

source: AP
Mata’s 52 passes led Manchester United on Tuesday, his four “key passes” (Opta) tying for the team lead in the Red Devils’ 2-0 victory over Cardiff. (Source: AP.)

That promise is dependent on Mata playing well with both Van Persie and Rooney, something we didn’t get a chance to see against Cardiff. Van Persie started, Rooney relieved him, leaving Mata without an opportunity to provide for both scorers at once. That big reveal still awaits, leaving Manchester United with some important unanswered questions.

The way the Red Devils set up today, it was still unclear how they’ll deploy Mata with Van Persie and Rooney. On Tuesday, they played with two forwards – Mata playing behind Van Persie. With a setup not dissimilar to what United’s used all season, Moyes provided a small hint he may not change the formation for Mata’s arrival. After all, he hasn’t changed his approach much since moving from Liverpool to Stretford.

It’s a small hint, one that we shouldn’t read much into, but as NBC Sports analyst Kyle Martino said before the game, there’s a chance Mata ends up wide, playing the position he excelled in before arriving in the Premier League. If that happens — if Moyes does try to make Mata bend to him, rather than adapting to his talent — questions about United’s new manager will grow.

That’s not to say the set up can’t work. Right now, it’s one of a number of ways to get United’s three stars in the same lineup, but until that happens, Mata’s promise will be balanced against unanswered questions about how his new team will ultimately use him.