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It wasn't as spectacular a debut as was anticipated, but Manchester United's new club-record signing Juan Mata did provide a preview of the wonderful things to come in his new club's 2-0 home win over a Cardiff City side bossed by United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
With Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie having returned to the fold following injuries, it was thought that the new No. 8 would have to make do with a wide left role, but David Moyes opted to leave Rooney on the bench and grant Mata a free role through the middle in behind van Persie in a 4-4-1-1 formation.
His signing provided a huge lift for the club as well as its fans at a time when a lift was desperately needed, following the club's shaky start to life under Moyes. That much was made clear when Mata's first few touches of the ball, even though they weren't in threatening positions, were cheered by the thousands upon thousands of chuffed fans that packed Old Trafford.
Typically, Mata dropped deep into midfield and even drifted out wide on occasion in order to get on the ball, and his new team-mates were happy to oblige and lay it off to him. As soon as he got it, he raised his head in search of passing options, often making up his mind to hit it out wide for wingers Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. Going forward, though, United need to get more runners off the ball in order to give Mata more options to look for.
Mata's desire to pass out wide as well as his execution led to van Persie's early goal, which was his first since November 10, when he scored the winner at home to former club Arsenal.
Admittedly, the Spaniard's long cross-field pass was aimed at Young, but the England winger wasn't allowed to control it by his opponent, and it instead broke for Patrice Evra, who had come forward on the overlap and subsequently did very well to prevent the ball from going out of play.
His pass found the Dutchman at the edge of the box, who then laid it off to Young, who in turn teased in a lovely, curling cross which was met by the head of Valencia, who had taken up a very promising position in the six-yard box. The Ecuadorian hit the crossbar, but Van Persie was there to follow up, and he headed home on his second bite of the cherry, as goalkeeper David Marshall had done extremely well to save his initial effort.
After just six minutes, the little Spaniard had made his mark. But he wasn't done yet. On 59 minutes, he recorded his first assist in a red shirt. It wasn't one of those 'Hollywood balls' or a neatly-threaded through ball, though. For this goal, Young deserves all the plaudits.
Mata passed the ball calmly and simply to him out wide. He teased his defender before cutting inside and then fired a powerful low effort beyond a sprawling Marshall into the corner of the net. It was a fantastic finish.
Mata had his chances too, but neither of his two efforts caused much concern. His right-footed shot from the edge of the box lacked conviction as it was his weaker foot, while his left-footed effort later on from inside the penalty area wasn't struck cleanly, as he he had not positioned himself properly. He made a few runs into the box otherwise, but wasn't picked out.
These are just the early stages, one would do well to remember. As Mata settles in and the team adapts to the Spaniard's style, a better understanding will be formed and the team's overall performance in the attacking third will improve. It must be noted that the team as a whole put in a very average performance, despite the result.
Moyes must play his part as well, choosing his tactics wisely in order to ensure that he gets the best use out of his new signing, something that hasn't happened with Kagawa, who looks very much out of the picture at the moment.
Cardiff caused more than a few problems over the course of the match, but poor finishing and passing in the final third let them down. Mata often dropped back with the rest of his fellow midfielders when Cardiff had the ball, but he was mostly just waiting for an opportunity to lead a counter-attack and didn't really exert himself in the defensive phase of play, something that former manager Jose Mourinho had an obvious problem with.
The 25-year-old pressed the opposition sporadically, sometimes pushing up to pressure Marshall in his penalty area or putting an unconvincing foot in when he dropped back. In the end, he won one tackle and committed three fouls.
His debut ended after 84 minutes, when Adnan Januzaj - a player Mata should relish linking up with for years to come - was given his place. Once he settles in and United improve the squad around him, expect him to have more of an influence on matches.
- Sports & Recreation
- Juan Mata
- Manchester United
- Cardiff City