Competition for places is a necessity for success. It keeps players at their sharpest, maintains motivation and, ultimately, is a factor driving the club forward. The introduction of a new manager can create a situation where competition is particularly important. Early performances create lasting impressions – a fact players under José Mourinho’s new regime already know.
Juan Mata joined the Mourinho era with a target on his back. Once a player during Mourinho’s second regime at Chelsea, many expected that the Spaniard to become the first squad member culled in the inevitable summer clear out. Early reports named Mata as a player ‘officially for sale’.
Yet, contrary to expectations, the playmaker appears to have survived the summer. Matt’s perseverance has paid dividends, with all indicators suggesting that the Spaniard will be retained, having proven himself through training, pre-season and in the opening matches of the campaign. Mourinho is seemingly now convinced that one of the men originally perceived as an outcasts has a vital role to play.
The question now is whether Mata’s role is as a bona-fide starter or just another player in Mourinho’s rotation. It is no shame to be the latter, but very few players have the ego to stomach a reduced role. While Mata is certainly not driven by his ego, he has not built a career being a bench warmer.
The Spaniard’s early season performances on the right have allowed his new manager to not rush new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan into the team. The highly rated Armenian was a £35 million acquisition from Borussia Dortmund this summer, with United winning the race to sign the reigning Bundesliga Player of the Year.
Because of Mkhitaryan’s absence, questions have already been asked. Why isn’t one of the summer’s most expensive purchases not in the team? It is par for the course at United – a high-profile signing at the world’s biggest news generating football club. There have been claims that the Armenian is struggling to adapt or, with little credibility, that Mourinho doesn’t rate the new man as much as he might have thought.
The claims lack credibility because the Portuguese boss spent much of his unemployment scouting the players he ended up signing. He was spotted in Dortmund and Paris, for example. It’s highly doubtful that he has given up on his star man after two games. Closer to the truth is that many signings take time to integrate.
Yet, Mkhitaryan’s slow start has given Mata fresh hope at United and an opportunity to make a claim for a permanent role this season. Though he lacks pace – the main quality Mourinho likes in his wide attackers – Mata’s discipline and work rate has significantly improved since his move to Old Trafford. The player who left Stamford Bridge is not the same one Mourinho manages today.
While Mata’s lack of tackling skills and slight physique makes defending difficult, his defensive contribution has certainly come a long way. Rather than enjoying a free role through the attack, Mata has learned to track back and play his part in a defensive unit.
Mkhitaryan is a very different player, although the expectation is that he will compete directly with Mata for a role on the right side of the team in the coming weeks, at least while Wayne Rooney occupies the place at number 10. The former Shakhtar and Dortmund man is a pacey runner and has developed a clever eye for goal.
Both players are terrific passers, whether it is playing teammates through the middle or using a reverse passes when cutting inside. Mkhitaryan plays all the angles, operating in mid pockets of space and is an excellent crosser, which is why the 27-year-old can operate wide and at number 10.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Mata joined the Mourinho era with a target on his back. Many expected that the Spaniard to become the first player culled in an inevitable clear out. The role on the right is the Spaniard’s for now, but it is likely that soon Mkhitaryan will make his presence felt.[/blockquote]
The Armenian is also a wonderful dribbler, with close control leaving the ball practically glued to his feet when he gets moving. The workmate is terrific too, enabling Mkhitaryan to contribute defensively. Mourinho will enjoy his willingness to press. He’s also managed to made a good impressions coming off the bench against Southampton and Hull City.
What works against Mata is his tendency to drop out of games, although his growing ability to work for the team has helped counter this inconsistency. Both enjoy a very high football IQ, with the main difference between them, one that could be a defining factor, is the new arrival’s better physicality – a perfect mix of strength and speed.
Yet “Mkhi” is not perfect. He struggled at Borussia Dortmund under Jurgen Klopp when the team was going through a turbulent period. The player was asked to do a lot by himself, which is not his forte. Thomas Tuchel’s arrival liberated the player, in a system built to utilise the best of his talents.
Mkhitaryan is a confidence player, evident during Klopp’s tenure, and restored under Tuchel. It was no coincidence that the player’s performances improved after Klopp announced he would be leaving the club.
One other difference between Mata and Mkhitaryan is the latter’s understanding of how to keep the ball moving within a system. The Armenian always seems to know where to be and when within a team structure. And what does Mourinho like? Tactical discipline above all else.
If those observation’s point to Mkhitaryan’s victory in his individual battle with Mata, then the Spaniard’s edge is in his knack for moments of individual brilliance. Despite being nullified by Louis Van Gaal and David Moyes’ systems he was still able to create something out of very little. Mkhitaryan’s is a great team player, who works well in a structure.
Yet, both players should succeed in an environment where they don’t need to be the main man. It’ll be a fascinating contest considering the pair’s varying strengths.
Barring Rooney’s demotion, which would open up the number 10 role for one of them, it’s likely that Mata and Mkhitaryan will continue to fight it out for the starting berth on the right of Mourinho’s attack. It is the Spaniard’s for now, but it is likely that over time Mkhitaryan will make his presence felt.
This level of élite competition is healthy, and very much welcome at the start of a new era.