When Juan Mata arrived at Manchester United by helicopter in January 2014, United fans were ecstatic. In the diminutive Spaniard, they were getting arguably one of the best players in the Premier League— a World Cup and Euro winner at International level, and a Champions League winner, and two time Chelsea player of the year at club level. His arrival that January was supposed to spark a stuttering, and still hungover post Sir-Alex United in to life. But despite a few stand out performances, he has never quite hit the heights that many were expecting. So why?
The most obvious reason is that he has spent virtually the entirety of his United career playing out of position. Moyes, Van Gaal, and until recently Mourinho have all played him wide right, with license to cut inside, leaving space for Valencia to charge into behind him. But out wide, Mata is such a waste. He doesn’t have the pace to beat his defender, and his tendency to drift inside has often left United unbalanced and overcrowded the area just outside the opposition’s 18 yard box, especially against teams who are happy to sit deep.
In the last two matches against Newcastle and Chelsea, Mata has finally, FINALLY had an opportunity to play in his more natural central position— and what a difference it has made. When playing centrally, Mata has been given the freedom to roam, and is one of the only players in the United squad with the ability to quicken up possession. United have looked so ponderous in possession without him in the side, and it was no surprise to see Mata’s guile and speed of thought at the heart of both comebacks against Newcastle and Chelsea.
Going as far back as the retirement of Paul Scholes, United have lacked a real playmaker— someone with the ability and nous to unlock an opposition. Pogba is capable on occasion, but he lacks the consistency, and often the mentality to play that role for United on a weekly basis. Enter Juan Mata— like falling in love with a friend that you’ve always had a soft spot for but never thought would develop into something more and then SURPRISE you’re in love and it’s a perfect fit. If Mourinho keeps playing Mata in a central role, and gives him the freedom to use his brilliant football brain, the love affair between Mata and United that has been nearly five years in the making may finally have liftoff.