Saturday 16 February 2019

Van Gaal ready to make Mata United's perfect number 10

Crafty Spaniard set for key creative role in Old Trafford revolution

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney celebrates his second goal with teammate Juan Mata during the first half of the game against Roma in Denver. Photo: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney celebrates his second goal with teammate Juan Mata during the first half of the game against Roma in Denver. Photo: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Mark Ogden

Louis van Gaal is understood to be deeply impressed by Juan Mata's football intelligence and technical ability and has made him his first-choice No 10 for Manchester United.

The Spaniard's role at the club had seemed uncertain ever since he moved there last January and was promptly located on the right side of midfield by United's former manager David Moyes for his debut at Stoke City.

Mata's place was in greater doubt when Ryan Giggs omitted him from the first line-up of his own four games at the helm. The player's performance from the bench on that occasion, against Norwich City, underlined his professionalism.

POSITIVE

Mata's positive personality is of a kind that has always appealed to Van Gaal, who considers him to be a greater asset to United when played in the position where Rafael Benitez deployed him, during his time in charge at Chelsea two seasons ago.

Mata will be the nexus of the fast, possession-based brand of football Van Gaal will look to take into the new season. His contribution in the 3-2 win over AS Roma on Saturday was less substantial than in the 7-0 win over LA Galaxy.

He later cited a dry pitch which slowed play, though the way he took down Wayne Rooney's sublime 30-yard pass with his left foot, before dispatching the ball in off the post with his right, gave the Dutch manager good reason to discuss the merits of the football brains of both players afterwards.

Mata's impressive interaction on the pitch with his compatriot Ander Herrera so soon after the latter's arrival at the club has come as something of a surprise. Herrera's ability to shift the ball swiftly and intricately helped to create the penalty which Rooney converted for his second – and United's third – goal in 31C temperatures at Denver's Mile High Stadium.

The connection between Mata and fellow midfielder Herrera goes back 10 years – "he is a good guy, my friend, and we have known each other since we were 15," Mata said – though their roles in the 2011 Spain team which defeated Switzerland 2-0 to take the U-21 European Championship cemented the relationship. Herrera scored that night but his link-up play with Thiago Alcantara and Mata was fundamental to the victory.

Herrera has been more impressive than many had expected in United's two tour games, demonstrating that he can comfortably operate slightly deeper, building the play and freeing up the No 10 role for Mata. Herrera has the vision to know where his pass is going before he receives the ball and has looked a tougher player than Mata, capable also of breaking up play. He is a tough character, too.

The challenge will be for the forward Danny Welbeck to maintain his part in the front three. He has been sharp on this tour but Robin van Persie will walk back into the place Welbeck is holding when he returns from a holiday.

Midfielder Tom Cleverley's frustration at his own struggle to make an impact on Van Gaal at the Mile High Stadium seemed evident. It is three years since Cleverley's impressive pre-season performance against Barcelona in Washington DC. His career trajectory has changed.

"I think I can be (Van Gaal's) type of player," Cleverley said at the weekend. "I have to show that in training and most importantly in the games. I think there is a place for me. I have to prove that."

Early days, but the player who needs a change of fortune after the most difficult year imaginable has not yet found one. Mata is not the type of individual to pour scorn on a previous manager, but there was no doubting his delight in the decisiveness of Van Gaal.

"The manager is a great manager, who has brought a strong mentality," he said. "As a player you want a coach like this, always demanding more and (pushing us) to win games earlier."

The opposition gets tougher this week – Internazionale in Washington and Real Madrid in Ann Arbor, near Detroit. Van Gaal may be about to learn who else he can believe in. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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