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Juan Mata one year on: Quiet genius or underachiever?

Saturday 25th January 2014. The long waited signing of Juan Mata was finalised. It had been talked about and laughed off by most sections of both the crowd and football in general, but finally the announcement was made. The princely sum of £37.1 million (a then club record) changed hands, and the Spanish playmaker – Chelsea’s player of the season the one previous – was ours.

Of course with that money spent the expectations are high. Mata was seen as the man capable of turning the fortunes of David Moyes, it was Moyes’ marquee signing of his tenure. It was the most exciting part of the drab, dreary mess that was 2013/14.

Now under Louis van Gaal, he stands a survivor. One of ‘Moyes boys’ that (if you believe what was being said in the summer) was prime for the chop. He’s had to endure a fair spell on the bench and as a bit part, but can he be a catalyst in this band of underachievers?

To answer that its imperative to go back to the beginning. And to gauge how much of a success (or not) the Spaniard has been since his move.

He was the flair when he joined. The creativity that Marouane Fellaini (not surprisingly) couldn’t provide. He enjoyed a fantastic start to his career in Manchester and really justified the price tag. An assist on his debut (2-0 win against Cardiff) was a near perfect start, and he churned out more and more impressive showings as time went on. His flicks, tricks and touches of quality wowed the United faithful. It took until March for him to score his first goal – the third in a 4-1 home win against Aston Villa – and that opened the floodgates.

Mata finished the season with six goals in all. Following up his first with two against Newcastle (a peach of a free kick and a calm, collected finish after fooling Fabricio Coloccini), then another salvo against Norwich in the 4-0 win (two tap ins) and finished off with the only goal in a 1-1 draw with Southampton on the last day (another peach of a free kick). He also chipped in with four assists. It’s fair to say he was a star turn. A lynchpin we so desperately needed.

In spite of that, Mata has now become a bit part. His thanks for scoring two in the first three games of this season was to be dropped by Louis van Gaal. It took Rooney getting sent off (West Ham) for him to retain his starting place. He shone in a poor performance at home to Crystal Palace and eventually scored the winner. He repeated the feat at home to Stoke, only off the bench this time round.

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He seems to be the forgotten man this season, but it’s by no means his fault. It appears he is a player of preference. The problem he faces is he was bought in a time of despair and failure, since then mega money has been spent on Angel Di Maria and the system has changed. There is apparently no space for him ahead of the woeful Robin van Persie (whom Mata has far outperformed this campaign), Di Maria or the disappointing Radamel Falcao, in spite of his far greater impact so far.

In the past year Mata has proven himself a top signing. With a prolonged run in the team he could easily be our best player (or one of) and bring out the best in others. It is genuinely difficult to pinpoint any moments where he hasn’t performed to the top of his game – of course there are some, but not that spring to mind – he isn’t being given a fair crack.

Hopefully there will be a second anniversary of his signing and he isn’t involved in the foreseeable cull in the summer window. There is the fear, though, that he will become the forgotten man and be sold. If he is then we will be losing someone that’s a real asset.

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