When it became apparent in the wee hours of an otherwise sombre Thursday morning that Chelsea were contemplating selling one of their best players to a direct title rival (or a would-be-maybe-next-year direct title rival), astonishment abounded in football media.
Sky Sports commentator Gary Neville opined that he wasn’t sure how much Manchester United needed Mata but he was extremely sure Chelsea wouldn’t be likely to sell to a rival. The Daily Mail and the Mirror concurred- it would be outlandish to even think of it! Goal.com called it “The January Window’s most ridiculous transfer”.
Three days later David De Gea was pictured ushering Juan into training and introducing him to the Manchester United first team. That’s what this writer loves about football- ridiculous things happen, and usually ridiculous people are involved.
Jose Mourinho was about as clear as he could be about the fact that Juan Mata was no longer his first-choice number ten. The sniffing began with PSG and Real Madrid rumoured to be among those interested. The price would be heavy- that was clear, but it was also clear that English teams were not in contention.
So what changed? Well, to put it simply, Jose needed to do something Jose-like. He needed to set a precedent. Wayne Rooney wasn’t sold to Chelsea in the summer under the safe and reasonable pretext that a club doesn’t sell to a direct title rival. Well, conveniently as things transpired, United fell far short of being title contenders and Jose saw a golden opportunity to make some money, get rid of a player he didn’t want and demonstrate to United that “some clubs do sell to title rivals”. His ulterior motives (if any!) are things he is best aware of but one thing is certain- it sends a powerful message about how confident Jose is in his current squad of players.
The truth is that’s a hallmark of all great managers. Sir Alex Ferguson achieved astonishing things with a group of players who, in the present season, have been astonishing in an entirely different way. Injuries plagued his teams as well but that never stopped him from keeping the bigger picture in mind and taking difficult calls- like saying goodbye to David Beckham when he was at the top of his game or spending close to 30 million on Robin Van Persie when many thought he was past his prime. And it’s in pursuit of that very same well-timed wisdom that David Moyes has hauled Juan Mata to Old Trafford. Mata may not be the solution to United’s problems (this writer doesn’t think so) but he’s certainly the solution to Moyes’. In a season peppered with losses and less-than-perfect performances, fans are losing patience in their so-named “chosen one” and he needed to make a serious statement of intent in that window.
So, on paper the Mata transfer seemed to be a win-win for all concerned. Jose got his money and proved his point, Moyes appeased some of the growing Red Devil animosity towards him and Juan finally got a chance to play some football. How long would the sunshine last, though? Well, about seven days if you’re Manchester United.
Juan Mata was voted Man of the Match for his performance against Cardiff City, where he helped propel United to a 2-0 win. Joy abounded as many in the red of Manchester could finally see the light at the end of a pretty dark tunnel.
Cut to three days later in the windy plains of Stoke. Former Anfield “legend” Charlie Adam (err, well he is today anyway) returned to haunt the Devils of Manchester with a little help from the world’s slowest moving footballer Michael Carrick. Juan notched up another assist but it didn’t Mata. Beyond anything else, that game proved what most in football already know. Manchester United’s problems go beyond the hunt for a midfielder, a defender or a centre forward. The problem is not with the people not signed yet. The problem is with the attitude of those currently in the team.
David Moyes was quick to come out and say they were unlucky. They created chances but somehow couldn’t finish them. And they conceded from a set-piece. Again. Clearly unfortunate. There’s no other conceivable explanation. Except maybe lazy defending, a lack of belief and abysmal finishing but we dare not venture there.
Alex Ferguson’s success mantra was always “focus on winning”. It’s never about how you win. It’s about winning. A team that gets remembered is one that wins. Many times his sides embodied that philosophy in its entirety and churned out woeful displays, somehow picking up the three points. Moyes’ philosophy seems drastically different. He seems to be narrowing down on playing attractive football. There are many occasions this season when we’ve seen United play decently well without scoring and get caught out at the other end. One wagers United fans would prefer their players be the ones doing the catching out.
Repeated defeats sap self-esteem. And belief. And erode the core of what may otherwise be a good team. A perfect example is Arsenal post “The Invincibles”. Seasons of no trophies have seen many players leave, and one fears the same may happen if United don’t change their philosophy. It’s all well and good to try and play attractive football. It’s imperative to win.
If the philosophy is the problem, signings Juan Mata much. A paradigm shift in thinking and strategy is the need of the hour for the Red Devils. Motivation must return because that will propel them to play the “winning way”.
Else, their wives may wear Prada but the Devils will get nada.