When Wayne Rooney was sent off against West Ham and subsequently banned for three matches, I posed the question that if Juan Mata were to excel in the captains absence, how and where would Louis Van Gaal fit Rooney back in the starting XI. We are now two games into the three game ban and Rooney’s place in the team is in no immediate danger. Two insipid performances from the Spaniard have left me puzzled at his current situation.
Fourteen months ago, many of us scoffed at Jose Mourihno’s failure to include the then two-time Chelsea player of the year in his plans. Mourihno made it clear that he favoured a different type of player to Mata and brought in the industrious Willian, who works just as hard defensively he does going forward. Mourihno then publically questioned Eden Hazard’s place in the team and demanded that the mercurial talent do more when his side were not in possession. One thing was for sure, Mourihno didn’t fancy Mata, and in the January transfer window received £37 million for a player he deemed to be surplus to requirements.
Mata arrived at Old Trafford as their record signing, with David Moyes hoping he could help salvage his disastrous season at the helm. In truth, Mata found himself on a sinking ship and there was little he could do to halt the drastic decline of the side. More often than not, Mata found himself marginalised on the right of a four man midfield. Opportunities in his favoured number 10 role were few and far between under David Moyes and he endured a difficult start to his Man United career.
Following the appointment of Louis Van Gaal, United played in a 3-5-2 system during their pre-season tour of the United States, with Mata in his preferred central role behind two strikers. It looked as though he would finally get a consistent run in the team and be the creative force that contributed 33 goals and 50 assists in his two and a half years at Stamford Bridge. However following the surprise deadline day capture of Rademel Falcao, Mata has once again found himself on the outside looking in. Rooney has now dropped to the tip of the midfield diamond in order for the Colombian to take his place alongside Robin Van Persie in attack. When commenting on the change, Van Gaal stated that he wasn’t happy with Rooney’s performances as a striker or Mata’s as a midfielder. It’s also worth noting that Van Gaal hinted that his captain is the only player who can be sure of a starting place.
One kick-out at Stewart Downing later and Mata had his chance to make his mark on the team and provide Van Gaal with a selection headache. It’s a chance Mata has failed to take and barring an outstanding performance against his old side Chelsea on Sunday, Rooney will walk back into the team for the Manchester derby. Mata was ineffective against Everton and West Brom and failed to impose himself on either game. No one can deny Mata’s technical prowess but with another spell on the sidelines looming I wonder what the future holds for the Spanish trequartista.