The Louis van Gaal era is almost upon us with Manchester United hosting Swansea City in Saturday’s early kick-off. Supporters are looking forward to the Dutchman’s reign after David Moyes’ tumultuous spell at the Old Trafford helm, which lasted 10 months. The Scot’s poor management skills saw the club lumber to a seventh-placed finish, their lowest in Premier League history.
Excitement, however, has engulfed the club ahead of the meeting with the Welsh side. Van Gaal is expected to deploy a 3-4-1-2 formation, much like he did with Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup. New signing Luke Shaw may be sidelined with injury, but fellow summer arrival Ander Herrera is expected to line up in midfield as United aim to kickstart their season in style.
Much of the focus, though, has been on the attacking three and who will start the first league game under the Dutch tactician. Compatriot Robin van Persie is a doubt due to his excursions at Brazil 2014, but Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata are tipped to feature from the off against Swansea. Mata signed for the 2012/13 champions back in January and it’s fair to say United fans will see the best of the diminutive schemer with Van Gaal at the helm.
Mata is widely considered one of the best creative midfielders in world football, so utilising him in a position that would harness his inventive ability should be the priority of any manager. Despite Moyes’ tactical inflexibility, Mata still averaged more key passes per league game (2.2) than every United player last season. With minimal defensive responsibilities, the 26-year-old should thrive in between the lines, especially with a fit Van Persie and Rooney in front of him.
While Van Persie struggled with injury last season, the striker appeared to be back to his best at the World Cup. The ‘high-five’ with Van Gaal following his header to put Netherlands on their way to the 5-1 win over Spain would have put a smile on the face of United fans, who feel ‘SuperVan’ will return to form under the watchful eye of his countryman.
Despite a lack of Premier League action last term, the 31-year-old still netted 12 times in 21 appearances, while only Luis Suarez (54) has scored more goals than Van Persie (38) in the last two league seasons. With Mata pulling the strings in the final third, ‘The Flying Dutchman’ is now tipped to replicate his goalscoring exploits from his debut campaign at the club.
Furthermore, his displays in South America proved he is able to perform with a strike partner and Van Persie is expected to line up alongside Rooney once the former returns to fitness. The England international has his doubters, but is an astute performer in and around the 18-yard box. Rooney is the only player to hit double figures for both goals and assists in the last two Premier League seasons and has returned to pre-season ready and raring to go for the new campaign.
Handed the captain's armband by Van Gaal, Rooney’s morale is likely to be sky high and the performances should reflect this now that he is regarded as the main man at Old Trafford. Nonetheless, it is Mata who is likely to be the key player for United this time around.
Granted, Van Persie and Rooney will be the goalscorers in this United set up, but fans are yet to see Mata performing at his finest. The Spain international proved his worth for Chelsea and in the number 10 role for United, should provide enough ammunition for the aforementioned strike pairing to excel. For a club record £37.1m, United secured the services of one of the finest playmakers in the game and, under Van Gaal, supporters should see the best of Mata this term.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.
By Ben McAleer - @BenMcAleer1
- Sports & Recreation
- Manchester United
- Van Gaal
- Wayne Rooney
- Premier League
- Juan Mata