Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United team already appear to be getting back the style that made them such a threat.
Before Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure the side were the most feared in England – with their record for success since the conception of the Premier League remarkable.
However, last season that aura of invincibility diminished – with a host of sides going to Old Trafford and picking up results.
It was a disastrous campaign, which saw them drop to seventh in the league, with David Moyes, lined up as Sir Alex's replacement, looking more and more out of his depth by the game.
Now, with an experience manager in charge, they are winning plaudits again. Van Gaal has introduced a 3-4-1-2 formation over pre-season and the United players seem to be thriving in their new found system.
The Red Devils remained unbeaten against some of Europe’s best teams during their tour of America and will now be looking to carry that momentum into the Premier League season.
And, arguably, the player showing most signs of promise in the new system is Juan Mata.
The diminutive Spaniard had dazzled fans at Chelsea when he plied his trade in the capital, but Jose Mourinho’s reluctance to give him regular first-team opportunities meant that he became unsettled.
As a result, United capitalised and Moyes brought Mata in as the man to revive his reign as manager, as the pressure mounted on him.
It was not a move that worked. Mata’s form was satisfactory, if not spectacular, but the Scot continued to show his lack of tactical expertise at the elite level by playing one of the best creative outlets in the Premier League out on the wing.
It meant that he could not impact the game as much as he would have liked and that his key strengths were largely nullified.
As a result, one of the immediate things Van Gaal has done since taking over is to bring Mata back to his favoured, centralised position.
Showing a forward thinking approach, he has devised a system which can utilise his trio of attacking talents – the aforementioned Mata, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie – in tandem and the signs are that it will flourish when brought back to domestic football.
Although Van Persie has been ruled out of contention for pre-season so far, Rooney and Mata have both been central to United’s success and the return of the 31-year-old will only go on to improve the side’s attacking threat more.
It is because of this that United fans head into the season with an optimism and excitement which was drained out of the club last season.
Mata shares this excitement, too, saying he feels comfortable playing in his current role in the Red Devil’s squad.
"I feel good and I feel comfortable in this position," he said.
"I have to do what the manager wants me to do, both offensively and defensively, and I am trying to do that."
"It can be a good position for me to try to perform to my best."
It is important that he does feel comfortable, as Mata may just be United’s most important player this season.
He will be expected to be the creative fulcrum for the team as the side look to use more productive football than the ‘cross-and-hope’ approach which was on display on regular occasions under Moyes’ stewardship.
The attacking midfielder’s role has increased in importance in modern times, with almost every top club side adapting to the evolving tactical shifts in the game and utilising one.
Gone are the days where a rigid 4-4-2 system is favoured in the Premier League – even if Manchester City’s style was somewhat similar last season – with most side’s across England favouring a more continental approach, with four banks of players rather than three.
And, in Mata, United may just have the best of a group of excellent number tens in the Premier League.
|Team||Pos||Goal Assist||Goals||Won Contest / apps||Accurate Pass / apps||Big Chance Created / apps||Fwd Pass / apps||Touches / apps||Dispossessed / apps||Apps||Mins|
|David Silva||Man City||MF||9||7||1.07||61.04||0.41||19.78||86.22||1.96||27||2,173|
|Juan Mata||Man Utd||MF||6||6||0.86||43.86||0.32||11.89||65.29||2.00||28||2,064|
That said, he will have to improve on his performance last season (shown above), as he was surpassed by almost every one of United’s main contenders' options in the same position.
David Silva, at City, had the best stats of any of the clubs’ architects, but Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil – who was heavily criticised – and Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho also showed better form.
This, of course, should be caveated with the fact that they were playing in side’s which were altogether more functioning and confident, but Mata must show his form which established him one of the finest Premier League stars only a few years ago.
If he does, United won’t just have to settle for fourth place – they will be back in title contention.
There is an opinion that this is still a United side in transition, but the squad they possess is capable of rivalling any of their rivals.
The bulk of the team is still the one which Ferguson guided them to the title with only two years ago and, although another centre-back and a central midfielder will be on the wishlist, anything other than a top four finish will be considered a failure.
Mata can ensure that that doesn’t happen – he is part of, arguably, the best attacking line-up in the Premier League - and HE will be central, literally and figuratively, to United’s chances this season.