If Manchester United fans had been hoping Louis van Gaal would have the reverse effect to that of his predecessor, they’ll have been disappointed to see how literally the football gods had interpreted their prayers.
Where David Moyes flattered to deceive through a 4-1 away victory over Swansea on the opening day of the previous campaign, the Red Devils’ newly appointed Dutchman got off to a very different type of false start in falling 2-1 to the Jacks.
And Van Gaal oversaw the defeat standing before of side’s onlooking – and expectant – home fans, at that.
If subsequent events under Moyes taught us anything, however, it’s that opening fixtures aren’t always a reliable forecast for the remaining 37 games of the campaign and transfer activity will have a major say in how Van Gaal’s debut season in the country pans out.
Yet, Van Gaal already possesses an array of talent and, so, ensuring they perform to the standard expected will be the key factor upon which the all-conquering Dutchman is eventually judged.
Among the principle shortcomings levelled at Moyes was his handling over Juan Mata, and given the substantial expense to which United went in order to sign the ex-Chelsea playmaker, ensuring the player realises his full potential will be high on the Van Gaal’s to-do list.
The result of past experiences with Moyes, as well as with Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, Mata has come to be viewed as a instrument which demands a finely tuned understanding and appreciation. Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 system was supposed to be a means to unlocking the £37m man’s abilities, along with the task of addressing the tactical conundrum that is Wayne Rooney.
The problem, though, is that in doing so, Van Gaal has created further problems. The system requires at least four capable centre-backs (three starters and one as cover). The jury is out as to whether United have two and Jonny Evan’s history with injury is extensive.
Pertaining more to Mata’s performance against Swansea, there is also an absence of serviceable wing-backs, a position that has now become quite specialist given the universality of the flat back four.
Jesse Lingard’s placement in the role seemed enforced anyway, and so when the youngster was forced off through injury in the 25th minute, subsequent adjustments meant Van Gaal’s shiny new footballing framework drifted into 4-4-2 territory.
The result bore some of the symptoms on show during the period in which Mata struggled get going under Moyes.
Though his passing was generally consistent either side of the half-time whistle – and accompanying enforced tactical shift – Mata failed to create any goalscoring opportunities from open play after the interval. It must be said, however, that the creative output on display from the Red Devils’ record signing was, in general, below what’s come to be expected, anyway.
Precision is nothing if not applied to meaningful distribution and Mata impacted the tempo of the game very rarely throughout. The midfielder successfully executed 44 passes against the Swans, though just over half of those (23) went forward.
What’s more, Mata’s crossing throughout was mixed. The 26-year-old playmaker took the corner eventually turned in through Rooney’s unorthodox finish, though seven of nine were batted away by Swans defenders.
This was, ultimately, the extent of Mata’s contribution, along with one shot, one tackle and one header.
Having twice won Chelsea’s Player of the Year award and generally impressed during his time in the Premier League, there is undoubtedly much more to come from Mata. Yet, if it’s Van Gaal failing to get the best out of him rather than Moyes, you can expect a greater portion of the criticism to come his way, than was the case amid the backdrop of the Scotsman’s poor showing at the helm.
There is a sense of wish fulfilment going into what’s meant to be a new United era, in that the new system gives Mata the chance to perform in his favoured role. And it’s crucial that the Spaniard seize this chance going on, because should he fail to hit form soon a sizeable excuse to hide behind will have fallen away.