Manchester United fans’ brief cause for optimism is over. Less than a week after signing Juan Mata for a club record £37.1 million and returning to winning ways against Cardiff, United fell to a lifeless 2-1 defeat against Stoke which left them facing the prospect of finishing the weekend nine points adrift of the Champions League places.
It should have been so different. David Moyes took the opportunity to unleash Mata alongside the fit-again Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, but stuck by his trusted 4-4-2 formation which left their newest recruit consigned to a spot patrolling the touchline.
Here was the chance for Moyes to demonstrate his tactical nous and show his side were ready to embrace a long overdue transition. But by slotting Mata into the original setup, the United boss did nothing to eliminate his side’s current problems. Why would you make Mata your marquee January signing if you intend to continue with a bland formation?
The shape clearly didn't suit United and, even with their three big names on pitch, the closest they came to an equaliser was from a late set-piece as Rooney rattled the post.
Mata would be far more effective in a 4-2-3-1 – deployed in a narrower attacking midfield trio alongside Rooney and Adnan Januzaj, who appears to have been cast aside since the Spaniard's arrival, and just behind Van Persie in a formation more akin to what he enjoyed at Stamford Bridge.
It might leave the Reds suspect at the back, but teams would be less willing to commit men forward knowing that a lethal foursome was ready to punish any misguided venture into their territory.
Mata has had two solid, if unspectacular games for his new side as he looks to rebuild his confidence following a morale-sapping stint under Jose Mourinho earlier this season. The quickest way to rediscover his former self would be playing in a role he is most accustomed to – and that is not as a makeshift winger.
It would only have to be temporary, but a system change is essential until a massive squad overhaul takes place. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen in January – or the summer for that matter – and they must now patch things up as best they can until the end of the season.
For 4-4-2 to be a success, you need electrifying wingers capable of consistently unhinging defences and a central midfielder capable of grabbing a hatful of goals. Put simply, United do not possess such players.
United have built their formidable reputation with sides boasting exciting wingers. But the days of Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo and co. are firmly in the past and until a spending spree takes place in the summer, they must find a different method of winning matches.
Currently the task for teams facing United is to negate the threat of strike duo Van Persie and Rooney. Pushing Januzaj and Mata further up the pitch would force opposition defences to rethink their strategy and should lead to more opportunities.
It might leave the likes of Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick exposed in the centre but that looks to be a running theme this season regardless of the formation, and United’s best bet to hurdle their current issues might well be a full-scale offensive. And, if utilising an attacking trio leads to them becoming too narrow, they still have Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia on the bench to inject width.
Moyes is losing far too many games and must now take a risk to ensure United avoid finishing the season scrapping for a respectable position in mid-table. They still possess some of the Premier League’s finest attacking talent and could do a lot worse than accommodating the lot of them, even if it means upsetting the team’s balance slightly.
United should not rule out a return to 4-4-2 which brought them their success during the Ferguson era, but only once they bring in the personnel to fit the system. Until then, Moyes must change the formation.
Ben Snowball - On Twitter: @BenSnowball
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