New seasons bring — among other things — opportunities to replenish or repair reputations. Juan Mata perhaps fits into the latter category.
The star signing of David Moyes’ torrid eight months at Manchester United, the Spanish playmaker failed to such an extent last season that the first thing Ryan Giggs did when handed brief control of the team last April was drop him.
Mata was, quite simply, the signing that never seemed to fit. Here in America, though, hope springs for the former Chelsea player. New United manager Louis van Gaal has confided to his associates that the 26-year-old is the man he wants to play behind Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie this season and Mata has the look of a footballer ready to make up for lost time.
‘It was difficult last season,’ said Mata. ‘We had changed managers but didn’t get the results. But we are starting a new season with a new manager and we aim to put the club back where it deserves to be. Things are changing and everyone is finding their new role in the team. That includes me.’
Mata’s influence at United in the wake of his arrival last January was negligible. Nevertheless his cause was not helped by the fact Moyes didn’t seem to know where to play him. Often marooned out on the left, he rarely saw any game time behind the two strikers.
Under Van Gaal, Mata has already been stationed in his favourite spot and on Saturday against Roma he flourished, scoring a lovely goal after a sensational pass from Rooney in the first half.
‘If I play behind the two strikers I feel comfortable,’ he said. ‘I have played on the left or right but my best season was when I played in that position under Rafa Benitez for Chelsea. I will try my best, during the season hopefully we can play good football and I can do assists and score goals because that is what I have to do.’
With Van Gaal trying to introduce the same playing system at United as he used to take Holland to the last four of the World Cup this summer, Mata could benefit.
On Saturday in sweltering Colorado, he linked up beautifully with Rooney and this is an understanding that Van Gaal will hope develops over the coming weeks. Yet United produced a peculiar display at Sports Authority Field. They should have been a couple of goals down early on before scoring three times in nine minutes before half-time and then slipping back into a torpor in the second half.
Roma’s first goal, scored from inside his own half by the Bosnian Miralem Pjanic, was a thing of wonder but the more mundane fact is that United were hanging on at the end. ‘We didn’t play a good match,’ admitted Van Gaal. ‘Maybe it was the altitude ... but we scored remarkable goals. Fantastic.
‘In the second half we didn’t keep the ball in possession. That’s all we had to do, to keep the ball and make the opponent run and run and run. It’s very difficult for them in the hot weather but we forgot to do that so we brought Roma back into the match. I am pleased we have won but it was no good.
‘The club agreed this game before I got here. I am not used to the hot weather. I was here in 1994 for the World Cup and games were played at noon. It’s not very wise. You have to play football at the right time. I’m sorry to say that.’
United go to Washington today ahead of a game against Inter Milan tomorrow. After that comes Detroit and Real Madrid on Saturday. If they win both they will be obliged to stay in America three extra days and contest an International Champions Cup final in Miami.
Van Gaal continues to sound like a man who just wants to get back to Manchester and begin preparations for some real football.
l WILFRIED ZAHA’S tour of America reached a new low when he was put through a double warm down session after the Roma game. Zaha is the only member of United’s 26-man touring party not to play a single minute of the club’s two games so far.
The young winger was told to do an aerobic session and then a gym workout with Darren Fletcher and goalkeepers David de Gea and Anders Lindegaard. Van Gaal said: ‘They are not fit yet. Not really. None of them.’ – Daily Mail