As Manchester City inflicted another hammer blow on rivals United’s season last night in a 3-0 win at Old Trafford, the difference between the two Spanish playmakers on opposite sides of the divide was very apparent.
Widely regarded as two of the Premier League’s most technically gifted players, one is soaring towards playing a key role in this summer’s World Cup, while the other faces the prospect of missing out on inclusion.
The two players know each other well having played together at Valencia and for the Spanish national team, but on current form they are suffering contrasting fortunes.
David Silva was simply masterful in City’s domination over United, with the diminutive playmaker’s ability on the ball and movement off it simply too much for the hosts to handle.
Silva took up the number ten role behind Edin Džeko and caused problems from the very first minute. His movement meant that Phil Jones, Michael Carrick and Rafael all ended up marking him at different times, but with no designated opponent to limit his influence, Silva simply ran riot.
The City man looked razor sharp with his range of passing and first touch, with his vision carving United’s defence up almost at will. His constant link-up play with the likes of Yaya Touré and Samir Nasri was a joy to behold, with the mini-magician making the reigning Premier League champions look decidedly average.
At the other end of the pitch Juan Mata played most of the 90 minutes in a similar number ten role, despite starting the game on the flank. A quick tactical change from David Moyes saw the Spaniard utilised centrally, playing behind Wayne Rooney and latterly Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández.
There has been a lot of talk over Mata and Rooney being too similar and both wanting to play in the number ten role, but injury to Robin van Persie allowed Moyes to deploy the pair together as an attacking unit.
Despite Rooney’s usual cut-and-thrust approach and clever play while in possession, Mata’s performance was decidedly underwhelming.
The former Chelsea midfielder was guilty of coughing up possession on too many occasions, had a limited bearing on the game and was largely anonymous throughout. Even his usually immaculate delivery from dead ball situations was hit and miss.
Since becoming United’s record signing in January, Mata has not hit the heights that made him such a success at Stamford Bridge. He is clearly lacking confidence and belief at the moment, much the same as his team-mates, and looked nowhere near Silva’s level last night.
A number of factors outwith the individual playmakers’ control contributed to their respective fates.
Silva had a sleek, intelligent support network to link-up with and the lack of an opposition defensive midfielder to cut down his space. Mata on the other hand had no-one on a similar wavelength bar Rooney to connect with and had a determined Fernandinho continually in position to shackle his efforts.
That said, despite the contrasting state of affairs of their respective teams, the gap in performance between Silva and Mata was considerable with potentially only room for one in Spain’s World Cup squad. On current showing it will not be a difficult choice for Vicente del Bosque.