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A tactical Mata

Manchester United players won’t be doing much this weekend. Perhaps a round of golf or two, but they certainly won’t be playing in the FA Cup fourth round. This will give those at the club some time to work on a formation that includes new signing Juan Mata.

This time 20 years ago, United were thirteen points clear and playing their best football for a generation. That team’s front line was made up of Mark Hughes with Eric Cantona in a withdrawn role and Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis on the wings. When moving forward, the team shifted formation from 4-4-2 to 4-2-4, a game plan that hinged on Hughes’s ability to hold up the ball. The current line up could do with some of the same flexibility.

Darke: United making the right move •  Payne: The chosen Juan •  Marcotti: Unpacking the deal

United need a team and a system that is capable of changing with the play and in reaction to opponents. At present, the game plan is to supply the wing and insert delivery to 18-yard box. It is unimaginative and insults the intelligence of our players. It is also too rigid with regards to adhering to 4-4-2. Mata’s presence should change all that.

If United were to field all of their best players, the front six would now look something like Mata, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Adnan Januzaj, Michael Carrick and possibly Tom Cleverley. Whilst that indicates that midfielders still need to be bought, it also shows what type of players United have. Short passers.

The footballers in that set up are a group designed to hunt rather than bludgeon. Instead of sending the ball out wide, it would be nice to see United exchanging passes in midfield a la Argentina 2006 or Barcelona under Pep Guardiola. Right now, United are too predictable, if defenders were unsure where Mata or Rooney were going to pop up next, they would live in fear.

This approach is something United have done before in the glorious 2008 season. That year, Ronaldo began as an out and out winger before his goalscoring exploits saw him move further infield. Eventually, he was given a free role and Rooney, along with Carlos Tevez, interchanged positions in a rotating carousel that was impossible to defend against. All of the pieces necessary to recreate that puzzle are now in the current squad. Unfortunately, United are seventh in the league and have their confidence on the floor.

The last time United fared this badly in the top division in January was 1990. That was one month after the infamous ‘three years of excuses and it’s still crap, ta ra fergie’ banner. That year, United finished thirteenth and Ferguson was only saved by a decent run in the FA Cup. There will be no such tonic this time out. Much is expected of the effect Juan Mata will have on this team.

Follow him on Twitter @MarkJPayne.