The Spaniard received praise on Monday night for an enterprising cameo against Crystal Palace that helped create space during the closing stages of the game.
And he played an important role against Jurgen Klopp’s side, efficiently threading the ball through the lines to bypass Liverpool’s high press and get the ball to the likes of Marcus Rashford, Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku.
He also spurned two decent chances, but Neville, speaking after the game, noted that the value of the 29-year-old’s performance was unquestionable.
“It looks like you’ve got [Marcus] Rashford, [Anthony] Martial, [Romelu] Lukaku but they haven’t got that glue that just knits it together. Mata looks like he might become a very important player.
“Michael Carrick, [Paul] Pogba has sort of got the ability to connect back to front but Mata certainly has got the composure to hold the ball and allow those players to make their runs so they can get up the pitch and get into a point where they can play one-on-one.
“They need to be one-on-one. You see with Rashford [against Liverpool], [Alexis] Sanchez, Lukaku. Get them one-on-one around the edge of the box, they are probably as good as you are going to get.
“However to get the ball into those situations, as many times as possible with quality, you need someone to put the ball there to them and Mata did really well on Monday night.
“I thought he changed the game, many people said Rashford did. But I thought Mata played equally as big a role and today he’s done well off the right-hand side.”
The best Mourinho teams – and Man United teams – have always had a backbone of strong, quick, physically imposing players.
Nemanja Matic, Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Marouane Fellaini, Scott McTominay, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Antonio Valencia, Romelu Lukaku are all current examples of this centrality around stature and raw power, and at its best it can blow teams out of the water.
But nothing can be achieved at the highest level through cut and thrust alone. That power can only really reap its full effects when tempered with a more subtle, intricate influence on the ball – a conduit, so to speak, for fully rounded attacking movements.
And Mata’s mellifluous style on the ball, using the full potential of his body and low centre of gravity to manipulate every moment in possession to its greatest extent, does this wonderfully for Mourinho. Hardly ever does he lose possession; there always seems to be an option – an avenue through which to advance the attack – available for him.
He may not have an outstanding goals and assists record but United always have more structure to their movements with him in the starting XI.