These are uncertain times for both Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata. The former faces increased scrutiny about his position as an automatic selection for both club and country - not great news given as he now captains both - while the latter could well find himself out in the cold less than a year into his stay at Manchester United following a summer of heavy spending by boss Louis van Gaal.
Rooney's reputation and standing as Manchester United's highest earner mean he is granted a certain amount of leeway that some of his colleagues may not enjoy, but that can't last forever. He hasn't exactly dazzled so far this season - then again neither have his team-mates - and now there are legitimate questions over whether if he deserves his place in the team.
So far the issue has been avoided thanks to injuries and Rooney has been used in a strike partnership, but once Van Gaal has a full squad at his disposal then it's a straight shootout between him and Mata as the Red Devils' main creative force. It's been presumed that the Spaniard could be the one to make way but there's enough evidence to suggest he should be given a chance to show what he can do in his natural position, even if that does mean the unthinkable; dropping Rooney.
Now, of course the waters are muddied by the questions over which formation will deploy following his summer spree and it looks as though 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 are the current front runners, and it is likely that Van Gaal that make the switch to the latter as his experiment with 3-5-2 continues to falter.
If that is the case then Rooney and Mata will be fighting it out for a spot as a right-wing forward (although a midfield berth may be available neither player is a long-term solution there) with a license to roam infield.
The key advantage Mata has over Rooney is his ability to look forward when on the ball to try and spark a move; so far this season he's played 64 forward passes in three games - when that's coupled with his 91% pass completion rate it makes for a pretty potent mix.
Rooney by comparison has made 52 forward passes which over such a small sample size (three games of this season) is a fairly noticeable - as is the way he uses the ball generally. Mata has a wonderful ability to take the ball on the turn so as to help his side move quickly, whereas Rooney is more ponderous, something that was certainly noticeable during England's game against Norway last evening when he clogged up the gears while Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling tried to get things going.
The Spaniard also has greater positional intelligence than Rooney, who tends to charge about rather than play where he needs to be, especially when he's playing behind a frontman. Manchester United's 1-1 draw with Sunderland offered a great example of his style of play. Nominally he was the number 10 but Rooney was generally taking up that position which forced him to occupy space out on the right. Despite that he found pockets of space across the front line and played some incisive passes, as the video below shows. His anticipation for his goal was superb as well.
Of course the issue around Mata is his lack of work rate going the other way - after all that's was abruptly ended his Chelsea career. There is a school of thought that creative types should create - you wouldn't get a Ferrari to do the school run after all - and you don't buy Juan Mata to track a full-back, you buy him to provide assists which is what he does best.
However Van Gaal wants his team to be greater than the sum of its parts; they need to work as a unit and that includes hunting down the ball and fulfilling a specific role within a framework. That means having the right player in the right position, which isn't exactly the case with Mata on the right on in midfield. Plus it is is undeniable that Rooney is a better finisher, and he sparkled for Van Gaal in pre-season.
Since the arrival of Falcao and Di Maria over the summer there's been a lot of talk about Mata's future and that's mainly because he is the type of player that a team must be built around. He flourished as the main man at Chelsea with 10 assists and 6 goals in 2011/12 - figures he bettered (12 assists, 8 goals) with Valencia in 10/11. He's not the main man at Manchester United despite briefly being the club's most expensive player ever, and he's not enough of an all-round player to thrive otherwise.
However he certainly has the ability to be a superb player if deployed correctly, and although the planning at Manchester United has been called into question ever since Ed Woodward took up reins from David Gill it would be nice to think that he - and all other new arrivals - were bought with a plan in mind.
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