Juan Mata produced a busy performance during Manchester United’s first leg 1-0 win over FC Rostov in the Europa League last 16.
The Spaniard, left on the bench for Man United’s last two games, was reintroduced to the starting XI on Thursday and continually pestered Rostov’s back four all evening with an array of precise passes and smart runs.
He then went on to grab the only goal of the game, tapping home from close range following Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s wonderfully executed flick.
A glance at Mata’s stats from the game sheds light on what was another subtly decisive display from the Spaniard.
Mata's game by numbers vs. Rostov:
2 key pass
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) March 16, 2017
Seeing Mourinho deploy a three-at-the-back system can, at least at first, send chills down the spines of United fans: the days of Robin van Persie playing in midfield, Phil Jones taking corners and supporters quite literally pleading for a formation change at half time against QPR haven’t fully loosened their grasp on my memory. The days of 3-5-2 under Louis van Gaal – brief, sometimes quite successful but never pretty – constituted strange, unclear times for United fans.
But Mata was certainly not complaining against Rostov: Mourinho’s use of Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind as wing backs on either side precipitated a sense of doubt amongst the visitors, almost as if Ivan Daniliants’ men were unsure whether to track the Ecuadorian, sit back and keep tabs on Mata, or simply revert to a zonal approach. The end product, of course, was Mata enjoying plenty of freedom on the ball.
This is when the 28-year-old really starts to thrive: as a constantly involved, death-by-a-thousand-cuts type of player.