Tue. Oct 27th, 2020

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Man United might have found their perfect Plan B after Newcastle win

3 min read

At their best the Manchester United front three are an unstoppable force of nature, sending defenders spinning as they try and keep up with the pace of Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial.

With a game played to suit and space available to race into they can be deadly and with their combination play improving they are a major threat for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to utilise.

But speed isn’t the only answer in football. If it was Usain Bolt might have had a career in the sport after all, rather than a string of trials at third-rate clubs. Sometimes slowing the game down can work just as well, allowing for a pause, a moment of rest in an otherwise frantic game.

There will be times when United’s first-choice front three simply don’t fire, when they don’t have the conditions to be at their best. The problem for Solskjaer was finding an alternative, something he didn’t seem to have towards the end of last season, when fatigue caught up with Rashford, Greenwood and Martial.

But it now looks like the answer was there for Solskjaer all the time. In Juan Mata he has the perfect antidote to the pace and the fury of the front three, an attacker who glides across the pitch rather than racing straight down it, waiting for the picture to emerge and the passes to become clearer.

In a season where the speed of Premier League games looks to have gone up another notch, with goals flying in at record-beating rates and carnage the usual outcome, Mata is enjoying an unexpected revival. He’s an analogue footballer in a digital world but sometimes that just works and that looks to be the case for the 32-year-old at the moment.

His first Premier League start in nine-and-a-half months was a triumph. Mata was excellent from a right-wing starting position at Newcastle, drifting all across the pitch to get involved in the game, combining superbly with Bruno Fernandes and then Donny van de Beek when he emerged off the bench.

Mata gave United another creative option, easing the burden on Fernandes. His movement helped Daniel James and Rashford to find space and his combinations with Fernandes, in particular, pulled the usually structured Newcastle defence out of position.

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Solskjaer wanted another right-winger this summer but his targets only reinforced his need for the speed. Jadon Sancho and Ousmane Dembele would have made the United attack so electric it could have caused shortages on the National Grid.

But that won’t always be the answer. You need alternatives in a squad and Mata is providing that. His performances in Carabao Cup wins at Luton and Brighton and now at Newcastle suggest he’s been underused by Solskjaer since February.

There will be games that are just too quick and too chaotic for Mata to influence, but when United need an extra dose of creativity, or the approach of raw pace isn’t getting the job done, he’s proven he can still be a very effective Plan B for Solskjaer.

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