January 2014 was a mixed time for Manchester United fans. Enduring a terrible season so far (that would in no way get better) and suffering injuries in every department, the season was looking very bleak but one bright spark had lifted the club by February 1; the arrival of club-record signing Juan Mata.
After two seasons at Chelsea in which he won the London club’s player of the year twice as well as the Champions League, Mata struggled for game time in a more defensively orientated Jose Mourinho side in his last six months. Then-manager David Moyes and chief executive Ed Woodward realised the opportunity to bring a world class playmaker to the club and did so, albeit for a hefty £37.1 million.
Since his move Mata has enjoyed mixed times in a red shirt. After failing to find the net in his first nine games despite having some good games in an under performing team, he grabbed six goals in his next 6 games in a strong finish to the season. It’s also worth noting that despite only staring one game for Spain in the World Cup, Mata scored in the only match Vincente Del Bosque’s side won in Brazil.
Fast forward to this season and the little maestro struggled to continue last season’s form. The first three Premier League games for new boss Louis Van Gaal saw Mata start in every one but with United failing to beat any of the opening trio, not even a goal in the 1-1 draw with Sunderland could mask how non-existent he was.
Starring in a 4-0 win when QPR visited Old Trafford and again impressing when Leicester visited (despite a 5-3 defeat) saw the Mata of old return to form in the eyes of United fans but not in the eyes of Van Gaal, who axed Juan for the game against West Ham.
The reasons behind this were partly down to Van Gaal’s desire to play Wayne Rooney deeper but mostly (and rather surprisingly) Louis’ claim that Mata “hadn’t impressed” him as a midfielder. It was a huge blow for Mata who would have a great deal of difficulty displacing the captain who had been labelled ‘undroppable’ by his manager.
Still, a Rooney red card against the Hammers saw Mata start for the next three games but he impressed in none. The chance for the Spaniard to really show off his quality to the fans and the manager was wasted. United supporters begged for Rooney to return and replace him. Again, the story of Mata’s United career was reflected in the next four games; playing brilliantly in three (scoring once) but fading completely against Southampton on Monday. It finally began to raise the question amongst a split United fan base – where does Mata’s long-term future lie?
Let’s make it clear. Juan Mata was undoubtedly a panic buy. In a season that looked destined for mediocrity for the first time in centuries, Moyes and Woodward splashed near to £40m on a man who essentially wasn’t what they needed, a world class player no doubt, but not needed. Still, it can never be bad to have a high quality player in the ranks to offer some flexibility and depth, even if the money would’ve been best elsewhere. United may have overpaid for someone who was rather unfairly warming the bench at Chelsea but in the desperate state they were in and with a Premier League rival being the selling club, they were never going to get him for his true value.
In the 4-4-2 diamond, Mata has worked so well for United this season, leading the midfield and using the pace of Ander Herrera and Angel Di Maria brilliantly. He’s setting up plenty of chances even scoring a good amount. When United are dominant in games, or even comfortable, the Spaniard can and will easily boss the show at the expense of the opposition. However, these games aren’t the problem.
The problem seems to be that when United can’t get a grip of the game or lose possession cheaply. Mata seems to reduce effectiveness rather alarmingly. Take the game against Southampton. In the first half, Mata hardly received the ball and when he did, he rather Antonio Valencia-esque passed it backwards or sidewards. He was hardly noticeable. In the second half, he clearly attempted to get on the ball more but with his side losing the ball so much his time with it in the “hole” was minimal, and dropped so deep to get it that when he did it was way too far back for him to be comfortable. He looked lost for ideas.
It was not entirely his fault. The 5-3-2 simply doesn’t suit Mata at all with its counter attacking presence and inability to retain the ball and when your team mates don’t turn up either it’s never easy to influence a game. However, surely when he did have the ball, even if it was deeper, he could have done something with it? Easier said than done but the point remains valid, as does the fact that Wayne Rooney in this form and with his stature at United will not be dropped any time soon. When he moves deeper into the No.10 role as expected, where does that leave Mata?
Could he be left on the bench? That much quality would be a starter in many other teams but those other teams don’t have Rooney returning to form in the same position.
Let’s not forget how valuable Mata is to the side. In a lot of scenarios he is a key player and dominates games but with a manager with increased tactical flexibility and styles of play that won’t suit the Spaniard, is he valuable enough?
The issue of whether to stick or twist has so far split United fans. Some see his quality as vital and his presence in the squad hugely significant whilst others feel that if he can only dominate certain games in an ever changing team style he isn’t worth it. Some even think he is worth it but to have his quality on the bench week in, week out is unfair to both club and player.
Most agree though that he is a firm fan favourite. None of these views are wrong at all but the most important one right now is the one that the manager shares.
One thing’s for certain; the little man from Spain has to find some consistent form for the rest of the season or his future at United will be far from certain come the summer.