English football's fallen giants Manchester United earned a well deserved victory against Crystal Palace yesterday, which could prove to be imperative in their chances of getting into the coveted top four places on the league table.
As intractable and onerous as the game must sound to someone who didn't watch it, the Red Devils, with 72% of the ball, were in-fact bossing the possession throughout the 90 minutes.
United manager Louis van Gaal who fielded a back four that consisted of a one-legged winger, two teenagers and a midfielder due to a major injury crisis, created a buzz of disquietude among the Old Trafford faithful.
But astoundingly, it wasn't the makeshift defence that was incompetent. It was United's star studded attacking squadron of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Angel Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj that failed to find the back of the net.
Not until a certain Spaniard called Juan Mata was introduced into the fray to ferment United's striking impetus, anyway.
- Juan Mata admits to struggling during Manchester United vs Crystal Palace
- Manchester United 1-0 Crystal Palace: Player Ratings
Mata, who was subjected to much scrutiny from fans and media alike, took his chance like a fish to water. The former Chelsea stalwart's curled effort in the 67th minute ended Palace's resilient defending in front of goal and most importantly put a stop to the growing trepidation among the fans.
So where does this put Van Gaal? Does this effort warrant a place for Mata when the Red Devils line up against Arsenal at the Emirates two weeks from now? A game which we expect Radamel Falcao and Ander Herrera to be fit for and raring to go?
Van Gaal decision
Some might argue that this is the kind of headache that most managers will gladly welcome, given the plethora of stars they'd get to choose from. But the situation at Old Trafford is unlike any other. United are in need of points, not appraising experimentation.
Mata, who was previously twice voted as Chelsea's player of the year, if given a consistent run of games could walk into most team's starting line-ups. His ability to create something out of nothing is a trait most players would give their right arm for.
Lacklustre against Palace
A game in which British record signing Di Maria and Januzaj started on the wings to inject pace and urgency to United's attack, was ironically one of the most lethargic displays you'll see this season.
And in an already slow paced game, the last person you'd want to introduce is Mata; whose pace isn't his strong-suit. But there are many ways to go about the job and the Spaniard incontrovertibly proved that.
Van Gaal's argument could be that Mata isn't dynamic enough to fit in his philosophy. He prefers a very direct approach to the game than the crafty play-making that Mata is full of. The Dutchman has on more than one occasion claimed that Rooney has special 'privileges' on his team and the former Everton man looks certain to retain the No.10 role.
Now, with Falcao's expected return and Marouane Fellaini's late resurgence, there looks to be no way in for Mata.
Trouble for Mata
The Spaniard is the living embodiment of putting a square peg in a round hole for Van Gaal. Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho sold him because he saw Eden Hazard and Oscar as better in the role that Mata had made his own during his time at Stamford Bridge.
Mourinho was harshly criticised for this daredevil decision but ten months from that controversial transfer, and Chelsea are swatting teams like flies. So what exactly is happening to the talented Spaniard where he is consistently failing to establish himself as a key first team player? Is it the mythical second season syndrome? Or is it just plain lack of form? I believe it is both.
Mata is unlike any other signings United made in the past year or so. When former manager David Moyes bought him for a club record fee of £37.1 million midway through last season, the former Valencia man was perceived by fans as the messiah who would get them out of the slump that they were in and propel them to the lofty heights of the league table.
But another transfer window went by, more transfer records were broken, and United are exactly where they were under Moyes; beseeching for form and momentum. As good a player Rooney is as the No.10, his best position is up front partnering a fellow striker and dropping back from time to time.
When Van Gaal implemented the 4-4-2 diamond a few weeks ago, Rooney and Van Persie started together up front and Mata was deployed as the fulcrum through which all attacks commenced. This short run of games was probably the best we had seen of United in months as they brought the feel-good factor back.
So Van Gaal's decision to revert to what looked like a 4-1-4-1 against Crystal Palace, where Michael Carrick dropped back to screen the experimental defence and Van Persie operated as the lone striker, was disconcerting.
In order for Mata to flourish, either one of Van Persie and Falcao has to savour the bittersweet taste of the bench. Van Persie, who induced divided opinions among fans, looks most likely to get the drop as his inconsistency and lack of sharpness in front of goal has left supporters agitated.
What the fans want
The popular opinion on social media is to start Mata as the No.10 against Arsenal, in a 4-4-2 diamond with Di Maria and Herrera operating from the midfield, Daley Blind forming the anchor just behind them, and Rooney & Falcao starting as strikers. But Van Gaal is as intransigent and uncompromising as a manager could get.
He does things he sees fit, all for the betterment of the team obviously. As fans, all we can do is wait and hope that a player of immense talent doesn't get lost in the obscurity of the dreaded bench.