Manchester United - A graveyard for modern playmakers?
A quick glance across the playing XI’s of the best clubs in football is all you need to understand the importance, dearth and consequent pricelessness of the advanced playmaker.
Silva, Coutinho, Isco – to name a few – are the creative minds who make their frontmen look like superstars, quietly pulling the strings and calling the shots. And as the strikers hit the back of the net and take home the plaudits, the playmaker rests easy, confident in the knowledge that his team would not be the same without him, the provider.
But these creative geniuses, these no.10s, are few and far between, making them a priceless commodity. No (big club) manager in his right mind would ever sell a David Silva or an Isco, but if you had to guess, the duo would probably command fees in the region of 50-60 million pounds, or even more – such is their value to the team.
Chelsea are not nearly as fearful without Hazard, and Ozil’s return from injury and Coutinho’s 2015 form has changed the fortunes of Arsenal and Liverpool respectively. Yes, it is one of the golden facts of football. A 20-goal-a-season striker is as pointless as a McDonald’s in Antartica without a playmaker to feed his goal frenzy.
Juan Mata – a fixture on the Manchester United bench
Which is why it is baffling that a team of the calibre and size of Manchester United has, in the past three years, allowed not one but two high-quality playmakers to rot on the sidelines despite their obvious need to the team.
Shinji Kagawa and now Juan Mata have borne the brunt of poor managerial decisions and the inability of teammates to understand the players, leading to them being criminally underused and cast away from the first team.
I wouldn’t want to be Juan Mata at this point in time. Can you imagine how frustrating and depressing the view from the Old Trafford bench must be? Watching on helplessly as Smalling and co. lump balls to LVG’s not-so-secret weapon, Marouane Fellaini.
Looking on in despair as Jonny Evans passes the ball back to De Gea for the umpteenth time, only to have it lumped in the general direction of the strikers, who, spoiler alert, will be forced away from goal and eventually concede possession. Repeat ad nauseam, and you have just watched a game featuring Manchester United.
For reasons known only to Van Gaal, there is no place for Juan Mata in this shorn-of-creativity, awfully predictable and difficult to watch Manchester United side. Perhaps Mata, and to an extent Herrera, have said or done something to merit this cold shoulder from the manager. But then he is hardly the first no.10 to struggle to get a place in the side.
Shinji Kagawa had suffered the same fate
Before him, there was Shinji Kagawa. The Japanese international was bought following two successful seasons with Borussia Dortmund and was expected to be the spark that ignited United’s goalscoring coals.
But turbulent times and managerial upheavals meant Kagawa was looked upon as a luxury rather than a necessity. When results take precedence over aesthetics, it is always the artists who are cast aside prematurely.
The current situation is remarkably similar. Van Gaal needs points on the board to qualify his first year as a decent success. In that philosophical quest of his, there is no place for a tricky, intelligent Spanish attacker. Instead, we see Mata’s usual position being occupied by a clumsy with the ball and elbow-y without it Belgian. A sorry state of affairs, to say the least.
Come May, United will have (probably) attained their objective and qualified for the Champions League with a scarcely believable and dour brand of football. And in that aspect, Van Gaal can be rated as a success. But if that objective is accomplished at the marginalisation of a talented, £37 million worth, at-the-peak-of-his-powers attacking midfielder, then the loss is not just financial.
Teams like Atletico Madrid or Roma will come calling for Mata in the summer, both teams that will give him playing time and more importantly make the best use of him. And Mata will follow in the footsteps of Kagawa as yet another playmaker that never got to play at Old Trafford.