I got it wrong man. I got it totally wrong. It’s a monumental f***-up. A total mess. The biggest f***-up of my life as a coach.
When Real Madrid dismantled Pep Guardiola’s Munich he took it as a personal failure. A 4-0 loss at home. His key mistake was playing a 4-2-4. This disrupted the key concept of his style of play, the triangles.
Players in the centre of the field, Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger, were isolated. In a system that demands two supporting players they were often left with none. Madrid counter attacked, not in a particularly intelligent way, just with pace.
That was enough. Guardiola previously had formations that allowed players cover the pitch evenly thus allowing players on the ball have two options and the ability to press quickly.
That night it all fell apart. Possession based football has the capability to do that. Guardiola’s ‘tika-taka’, Louis Van Gaal’s ‘Positiespel’, they are not universal and rely heavily on the players at their disposal.
As Martí Perarnau explains, different in that one is played on a vertical axis while the other is a horizontal, but both about dominating the opponent with the ball. Pulling the opposition around, trying to create the over-lap, free or unmarked man and watch as your opponents defence crumble like a house of cards.
The difficulty with Van Gaal is that for his is a more cautious ‘philosophy’. It is a system of keep ball until a chance prevents itself. Creativity demands risk and Van Gaal would rather bore his opposition into timidly losing focus than forcedly carve them open with majestic exchanges. It is a system that is flawed and limited. But it can be successful. To what extent depends on one player, Juan Mata.
Mata is the key to this style of play. What is a 50/50 and thus no-go pass for his teammates is a 70/30 for him. When Memphis Depay, Michael Carrick or Bastian Schweinsteiger get the ball, players move towards him to limit the chances of Manchester United losing the ball. But Mata is different.
Mata gets the ball and players provide an option by moving away. They create one on ones, situations that are to high-risk for the rest of Van Gaal’s squad but not for Mata. He has started 13 games this season, tied as the most of any Manchester United player with Daley Blind.
Both Van Gaal and Guardiola craft a team around their system rather than a system around the team. Previously Guardiola had Messi, now Van Gaal has Mata. Everything Van Gaal demands, intricate one-twos to create space, close ball control, ability to finish and exchange positions, Mata offers.
He passes and moves, swings the ball side to side and looks to create. Every other player is simply a cog in Van Gaal’s guarded, eccentric machine but Mata is the driver.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho sold Mata because he was not the player who would prioritise defence as much as attack. The transformation in William provides a good indicator as to what Mourinho wanted of Mata. William arrived as a creative player who drove at defences and was a key component to a flowing attack, often the focal point of it.
Now he romps up and down the flank. Getting his body behind the ball when they don’t have it and trying to contribute when they have. Chipping in with the odd goal and assist, but ultimately a slightly more elevated wing-back.
The bitter reality for Chelsea fans is that if Mata was given the same relative freedom Hazard was last year, then they would have gotten the best out of a quality player. Juan Mata is a player who can fit into any system with the right variables.
The Messi comparison earlier might seem strikingly bizarre but it is in the context of a system. Messi is a man whose ability has reached such that pundits are now running out of ways to describe how they are running out of ways to describe Messi. Every complementary superlative has been attached to him in some shape or form and the game feels eerily less without his presence.
But Mata is someone who can also rejuvenate limited systems and strive in good ones. The old Man United, the one with a mesmerisingly pinpoint Paul Scholes and driven Roy Keane who famously informed a young Rio Ferdinand that he should ‘pass it forward. Take risks. You’re not at Leeds or West Ham now, you’re at Man United’, would suit Mata better. A novelty thought, all be it a waste of time.
That infamous night, Pep realised he had no central creator, a player who can pass the ball and run with it. He saw his midfield that night as steel not silk, and went on to sell Kroos and put his faith in Thiago Alcântara.
He didn’t have a player who didn’t need two consistent options, a player who in possession could unleash an array of talent in goal scoring positions, he didn’t have a Mata.
The fact is this current Manchester United desperately needs him. It is shamelessly difficult to hold back on finishing on a cringe worthy pun (‘they need him when it Mata’s’ or ‘he is their chosen Juan’ both attractive options) but it will suffice to say that before him, this was a role fulfilled by Tom Cleverley. His influence cannot be understated.