Pitchside Europe

Facts: 7 truths – Arsenal, Liverpool and Mata’s broken spirit


1. Chelsea didn't want Mata - so they crushed his spirit and threw him away

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Juan Mata

It's now a month since Christmas, and that lends Pitchside an alarmingly apt metaphor for Juan Mata - for he is a broken toy who has been thrown on the scrapheap before his time.

When a kid gets a fantastic present for Christmas, they play with it constantly, love it, cherish it and delight in its every trick for a while; then, at some point, something new comes along and they chuck it in the bottom of the toy box and forgot about it. Then, when they decide they want to play with it again, they take it out, notice that the batteries have run out, remember that they'd pulled one of the legs off last time they played with it, and end up chucking it back in the box, broken and unloved.

And that’s very much the career trajectory of Juan Mata at Chelsea, where he has been treated first so well, and then so badly, that there is a grave danger that his confidence might have been destroyed forever. This inordinately talented player was cast aside as Jose Mourinho decided to play with his new toys; and by the time the Blues boss decided to start giving him a chance again, months of torment and the resulting pressure to perform conspired to break him.

And make no mistake: right now, he is broken. His emotional letter to Chelsea fans was touching, honest and inspiring - but since when should a player who should be a strutting superstar feel like he owes an apology for an underwhelming spell in his past? Could you imagine Ronaldo, Messi or Zlatan penning such a message?

With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear to see that his fury at being hauled off the pitch just after half-time on New Year's Day wasn't aimed at Mourinho per se; it was frustration at himself, at his inability to produce anything other than a solid display when he is a man who expects of himself outstanding showings every time he steps onto the pitch.

Chelsea have form in breaking players' spirit, of course, as Fernando Torres will tell you. And like Torres, it's very possible that Mata will never again reproduce the form that made him famous. The only difference is that this time round, Stamford Bridge chiefs have been savvy enough to sell their unwanted toy on to an unsuspecting neighbour as soon as they realised it was broken. Only time will tell if Manchester United's TLC, reassurance and a return to the limelight he so craves will be enough to recharge his batteries, fix up his spirit, and get him back to delighting us all once again with his brilliant tricks.

2. United's Mata conundrum could transform Moyes into the British Klopp

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It's not often that a team who haven't played earn a spot in '7 truths', but developments at Old Trafford mean Manchester United became the big story of the weekend. David Moyes has started chucking the cash about and made a major statement with the signing of Chelsea benchwarmer Mata.

But his arrival - even in the event that the gloomy premonition above proves unfounded - brings a problem. Where is the Spaniard going to play?

Moyes’s favoured 4-4-1-1 system will surely continue to need Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in the two attacking spots, and it’s been well documented that Mata is neither a winger nor a central midfielder.

What seems like the initially obvious solution - a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree with both Rooney and Mata tucking in behind RVP - is actually a complete non-starter, since it would leave no place for United's player of the season (that's Adnan Januzaj, for those who've not been keeping up).

So that leaves the only realistic option as shifting to a 4-2-3-1 – a formation which would create the greatest disparity in Premier League history between the respective abilities of attack and defence.

An attacking foursome of RVP, Mata, Rooney and Januzaj would regularly bag three points regardless of the mess unfolding behind. And given that United's midfield has been pretty awful all season, why not just slash the headcount by half?

Such a gutsy tactical switch would have the lovely side benefit of instantly turning Moyes from one of the least-loved managers in the league to the coolest guy - Britain's answer to Juergen Klopp, if you will, and who wouldn't want to be that?

With 5-4 and 4-3 scorelines a regular occurrence, even City fans would be hard pushed not to develop a soft spot for United - particularly given the fact that United would no doubt end up on the wrong side of many of those potential seven-goal thrillers.

And sadly, that takes us back to the original problem: brilliantly entertaining kamikaze tactics simply would not be enough to guarantee a top-four spot, and with the financial well-being of MUFC PLC at stake it'll surely never happen. Not unless United pull out all the stops to fast-track a desperately-needed overhaul in defence and bring in a pressing midfielder who can bring back the fear-factor to the famous red shirt.

It’s time to dip into your wallet again, Mr Moyes; you have until 11pm on Friday.

3. Arsenal are quietly different - and winningly different

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In 2013, they lost at The Emirates to second-tier Blackburn. In 2012, they lost to relegation-battlers Sunderland. In 2011, they needed an injury-time penalty to avoid losing to Leeds, squeaked past Huddersfield, needed a replay to beat Leyton Orient before going out against Manchester United. In 2010, they were outclassed by Stoke.

These are not exactly the sorts of performances you'd expect from a team trying to fight for Premier League and Champions League glory - but they're exactly the sorts of mediocre showings that Gunners fans came to expect in the last few years.

And yet somehow, in the last five months or so, Arsenal have turned into the sort of team which laughs at the prospect of an FA Cup banana skin. An FA Cup match at an odd time (Friday night) against an odd team like Coventry is exactly the sort of match that used to cause all sorts of toil and trouble for Arsene Wenger's men - but whatever magic he's working this season seems to have turned them into the sort of side that brushes aside such teams with a classy, almost effortless 4-0 victory.

There are tougher times ahead, however, and not just in terms of their tough FA Cup last-16 match against Liverpool. The cup draw means they face a stretch next month which sees them play Liverpool twice as well as Manchester United and Bayern Munich in the space of 11 days.

In the past, that would have certainly marked the end of their season; this term, you'd fancy them to come out of it still looking like genuine trophy contenders on three fronts.

4. Liverpool have come a long way - but they've still got even further to go

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Brendan Rodgers has done a superb job since taking the reins at Anfield, transforming a seemingly rudderless and chaotic Reds outfit into a bright, hungry and exciting side. But the weekend's action on and off the pitch popped their bubble on both fronts.

They earned a fine 2-0 FA Cup win at Championship Bournemouth, but the fact that they put out their strongest XI to do so says it all about the depth of their squad.

Just as telling, and far more worrying for Liverpool fans, is the ease with which Chelsea stole 'Egyptian Messi' Mohamed Salah from beneath Red noses. Salah had seemed dead-set on a move to Anfield until the Mata deal materialised, and it appears that a two-minute phone call from Jose Mourinho was more than enough to make all thoughts of life on Merseyside evaporate from the 21-year-old's mind.

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So long as up-and-coming stars keep choosing buttock sores on the Chelsea bench over a near-certain starting spot and a chance at becoming a Kop hero, Rodgers's Liverpool will remain bit-part players in English football.

5. It might only be January, but City are displaying their quadruple credentials

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Here’s one to mull over: would Manchester City of yesteryear have displayed the spirit necessary to overturn a two goal deficit against second-tier opposition? Well, whatever Manuel Pellegrini said at half-time clearly had the desired effect as his City side battled back to claim a 4-2 victory over Watford and cause punters across the land to dip into their bins and retrieve discarded accumulators.

All this quadruple talk seems a touch silly given it’s only January, but they displayed a mental toughness often missing under Roberto Mancini as half-time substitute Vincent Kompany motivated his men to prevent a major upset and book an FA Cup last-16 date with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea.

With the League Cup all but in the bag (apologies Sunderland fans), and City ticking along nicely in the other three competitions, it looks set to be a year to remember for the blue half of Manchester.

6. Non-league Kidderminster were the real winners against Sunderland

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Kidderminster’s FA Cup journey might be over, but they can return to Conference football in the knowledge that they gave top-flight Sunderland a good fright. It looked gloomy for the non-leaguers when Charis Mavrias pounced on a rather comical defensive howler to put the Black Cats ahead, but they stuck to their task and would have forced a shock replay had Michael Gash and Freddie Ladapo not spurned huge chances.

For 90 minutes, the 4,000-strong army of away fans cried out in unison while those few that bothered to turn out for the hosts huddled in their coats, voicing occasional frustration as their side struggled to breakdown a resolute Harriers backline. The defending was unconventional at times, but it just further endeared us to Kidderminster and reminded us that away from the world of five-figure pay cheques and never-ending simulation is a proper, courageous game that continues to inspire.

7. The greatest FA Cup draw ever is actually the worst-case scenario

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The third and fourth round draws for the FA Cup threw up 48 games of football - and there was only one match-up in that whole list that drew anything other than an indifferent shrug from neutrals. That match, of course, was the Arsenal v Tottenham clash in the third round, which then had the insolence to turn into an underwhelming and one-sided encounter.

So when the first ball out of the glass bowl during Sunday's fifth round draw was Manchester City, and the second Chelsea, football fans whooped at the thought of such a mouthwatering game in the Cup. And when it was shortly followed by Arsenal drawing Liverpool, people started talking about Andros Townsend's efforts with the small plastic spheres as one of the best FA Cup draws ever.

On reflection, however, it actually turns out to be one of the worst. Oh, don't get us wrong, it'll be fantastic to see the top four clubs fight it out in two knockout matches - but wouldn't you rather it was at the semi-final stage? Sunday's draw means that two of the country's best and most exciting teams will be missing from the quarter-finals of our premier domestic knock-out tournament. And that's a shame for everyone.

Ben Snowball / Toby Keel

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