x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Cherry-picking or panic stations at Manchester United?

It is strange to sign someone who, like the side’s top scorer, wants to operate just behind the main striker, and stranger still when there is a far more obvious need for reinforcements .

Juan Mata has waved goodbye to Chelsea / AFP
Juan Mata has waved goodbye to Chelsea / AFP

It is a coup. It is a rare situation when an elite club has lured a major player from an immediate rival.

It is an injection of quality, in the form of a footballer who scored 20 goals and created another 35 last season, to a side that struggles to score and is not inventive enough.

It is an act of desperation. It is strange to pay £37 million (Dh225.8m), a club-record fee, for someone who, like the side’s top scorer, wants to operate just behind the main striker, and stranger still when there is a far more obvious need for reinforcements in at least three other positions. It hands a title challenger a sizeable profit for a player they rarely pick.

So which is Juan Mata’s move from Chelsea to Manchester United?

It is both.

It is the statement signing David Moyes has waited eight months to make and an indication of the panic at Old Trafford. It is an overdue recognition that United had too few world-class players in their ranks and a signing that means either Mata or Wayne Rooney – and probably the newcomer – will have to be accommodated in a less-favoured role.

Perhaps, however, it tells us more about Chelsea than United. It indicates that Jose Mourinho is confident enough that the fallen giants are no threat – and not just this season but in the foreseeable future – that he is willing to sell them a World Cup winner with such exquisite ability that he could be the catalyst for a revival.

And it reveals the Portuguese manager has won his power battles at Stamford Bridge. He has learned diplomacy late in life and, after being handed a surfeit of flair players and shortages of both potent strikers and resolute central midfielders, he has set about remedying the imbalance.

The exits of Mata and Kevin De Bruyne and the arrivals of Nemanja Matic and Mohamed Salah have also created the funds to sign more of his preferred players and tilts the shape of the squad back towards Chelsea’s two title-winning outfits of 2005 and 2006. There is more solidity in the centre, fewer flair players, but wingers with pace to counter-attack.

Imagine the outcry if Rafa Benitez had sold Chelsea’s double Player of the Year, a fans’ favourite and a player the owner Roman Abramovich admired. Mourinho’s credibility is such that he can do it and still emerge unscathed.

In contrast, the wounded, weakened figure of Moyes must hope Mata can effect a miraculous recovery. If United have paid an inflated fee, an extra few million pounds will be justified if he propels them into next season’s Champions League. It is speculating to accumulate, a principle the Glazers, who have operated the club since 2005, have rarely needed to adopt during their reign.

Yet United have never been as despondent or as desperate.

Perhaps the fatalistic feel around Old Trafford will dissipate with Mata’s introduction. Certainly, Mesut Ozil’s arrival at Arsenal galvanised an entire club with a display of ambition. The Spaniard is a similar player who has signed for a comparable fee. The difference lies in the context.

The German suited Arsenal’s ethos whereas Moyes’s United are searching for an identity. Just as importantly, Arsene Wenger added ballast to the centre of his midfield, with Mathieu Flamini, and found an effective central-defensive partnership, in Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny.

In contrast, United’s deficiencies in the middle of the pitch are mentioned so often they are almost infamous. Their swift defensive deterioration has come as more of a surprise. Even at Mata’s price, there is no quick fix to their malaise.

Instead, he should ease the reliance on Rooney and Robin van Persie – and, in their frequent absences, the overburdened teenager Adnan Januzaj – and add creativity to a side who have run out of ideas. His recruitment may prove a welcome piece of succession planning and could lessen the blow if Rooney leaves in the summer.

First, however, there is the chance that Mata may have to move to the left to accommodate Rooney. It adds to the intrigue of a signing that feels rather atypical for both United and their manager. Mata is not a typical Moyes buy. But Marouane Fellaini was, and look where that got him.