Manchester United defeated Brentford 3-0 in their final Premier League game of the season at Old Trafford, producing one of their greatest attacking performances in recent months.
Given that Juan Mata hasn’t started a Premier League game for Manchester United this season and is about to leave the club in three weeks, it’s not the best moment to realize he still has a lot to offer even at 34.
For the first time in a long time, Manchester United’s offensive was fluent and inventive against Brentford, and Mata was responsible for most of it.
This was a game played at the conclusion of the season, which was entertaining for its openness but not as physically demanding as a January match with rewards still on the line. In other words, it fitted Mata.
However, the seamless ease with which he controlled this game when United attacked was an interesting contrast to the frenzied style of play when Bruno Fernandes is working in the No. 10 slot.
Fernandes will almost certainly be back in that kind of role come the start of what needs to be an Erik ten Hag revolution next season, but there does seem to be merit in the Portuguese playmaker taking a page from Mata’s book and prioritizing possession as well as a desire to create every time he has the ball.
Taking that extra step and sometimes just making a simple pass gave United more time to develop attacks, putting more men forward and using more inventive movement to try to break down an opponent’s defense.
Cristiano Ronaldo has begun to venture further away from the opponent’s penalty area in recent weeks to try to be involved in the build-up play, and he was popping up on the right and left here, allowing Fernandes and Anthony Elanga to take up more central positions.
Mata is one of the four players we know will not be returning to the club next season, and there are no assurances around Ronaldo right now. He will have to accept playing outside of the Champions League for the first time since 2002/03 if he wants to complete the second year of his deal.
Ten Hag, who has many alternatives on the left side of his attack, should be encouraged by his recent performances and goal-scoring record.
The right-wing has been a more difficult position to play, although Elanga showed flashes of quality against Brentford. He would frequently draw wide to hug his touchline and drop in before turning around to try to outpace Mads Bech Sorensen.
That’s how he set up the night’s first goal. His move past Sorensen was perfectly timed, and he displayed incredible speed to grab the ball just as it crossed the byline, bringing a low cross back for Fernandes to convert.
The fact that Fernandes came over to celebrate with Elanga, who had fallen off the pitch by this point, showed his gratitude, and their link-up was a hint of things to come in a fluid attack.
Ten Hag won’t be able to replicate it in terms of players next season, but the movement and pace with which United played in the second half can undoubtedly serve as a model.