Much has been made of Manchester United’s performances this season. They have been defensively solid but going forward the Red Devils haven’t looked as potent as they did during the highly successful Sir Alex Ferguson era.
The late win at Watford means United finished the Premier League weekend in second place, only behind surprise leaders Leicester City. They are well and truly in the title race, yet, many people continue to question their title credentials and criticise their style of play.
Within Louis van Gaal’s rigid philosophy, Juan Mata has been the one United player that the fans have looked to offensively, to create things in the final third of the pitch.
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Do United have world-class talent?
Nobody can argue that David de Gea, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mata himself aren't world-class performers when they’re at their best.
Arguments could be made for adding Wayne Rooney to that list and there’s no doubting the fantastic potential of Chris Smalling, Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial. Everyone can agree, however, that the current United team only has a handful of world-class players.
This season, Mata has been the only United attacker to provide genuine world-class ability to the team. The Spaniard has predominantly played as a right-winger throughout his United career to date, and he’s adapted admirably to the role, but he certainly looks better when he takes up more of a central position.
From his inspired back-heeled flick to set up Smalling’s winner against Wolfsburg, to the assured penalty against West Brom before the recent international break, Mata’s contribution in terms of goals and assists has been exceptional.
He’s not the fastest nor is he the strongest, but Mata possesses imagination, creativity and sees things on the pitch that most players simply do not. He constantly gets his head up and tries to put his forwards in on goal with defence-splitting through balls.
Mata is currently the Red Devils' Premier League top scorer this season, which indicates his prowess in front of goal. In addition to his goals, Mata creates numerous goalscoring opportunities every game with his vision, intelligence and wand of a left foot.
When Ander Herrera was forced off through injury in the eventual 2-1 win at Watford, Louis van Gaal changed the shape of his team from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-1-2. This meant that Mata was moved off the right-wing and played in a more central role.
Operating just in behind Jesse Lingard and Depay, Mata had the license to roam all over the pitch and became a much more influential presence as a result. He was picking up the ball in lots of different positions, always looking to play forward passes in behind the Watford defence and the Hornets simply couldn’t handle the Spaniard for large periods of the game.
Is he United's best?
There’s no questioning that Mata is one of United’s highest-quality stars and this season everyone is starting to see just how important the 27-year-old playmaker is to this current side.
Mata has undeniable quality on the ball and I think that whether or not he can be described as United’s best player depends on where he is deployed by Van Gaal. If Mata is given the opportunity to play in behind the likes of Depay, Rooney and Martial on a more regular basis, it will allow him to have a greater effect on matches and the side will see the best from him.
Should this happen, I firmly believe that the former Chelsea man will be United’s best, and most influential player, not only for the rest of this season but for many years to come.
Manchester United fans: Who do you think is your best player? Give YOUR opinion in the comment box below!