Juan Mata: The Salient Hero at Old Trafford

In a team loaded with superstars of the League like Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford it is difficult for the likes of Mata to stand out with statistics like this:

Appearances: 20 starts and five as a substitute.
Goals: three
Assists: four

Taking these stats at face-value it is clear that Mata has taken a step backward this campaign after he hit double figures last campaign. But these stats do not tell the whole story. While not getting eye-popping numbers that other players playing in a similar position get, Mata is a pivotal part of the United attack. Here is another set of stats when Mata starts for United:

Games Started: 20
Wins: 16
Defeats: one
Draws: three

That’s an 80% win rate when Mata starts in the Premier League this campaign. Surely, such a statistic in April is no fluke. Mata’s style of play often goes under the radar given his disappointing numbers. But there is more to football than just numbers isn’t it?

Mata’s ability to drift into the center of the pitch starting from the right and find these little pockets of space in between the opposition’s defense and midfield is very important when teams sit back against United.

Even in United’s most recent match against Swansea, he faced criticism for what was a blunder in front of goal but that should not take the sheen off what was a solid performance. His off the ball running caused innumerable problems for the Swansea back line and they just could not cope with Mata running around and being a nuisance.

Even for Sanchez’s goal that put United two up, Mata had performed a role that not many would notice let alone appreciate. He dropped deep and picked up the ball at the halfway line and fed Lingard and the rest, of course, most of you will have seen tens of times in highlight reels as Sanchez coolly slotted it past the keeper.

The fact that Mata identified the space available and pulled the Swansea midfielders towards himself freeing up Lingard is important in the build-up to the goal. This is of course from just the Swansea match. Mata has done this all season but has not warranted the deserved praise for his role.

Mata’s constant running and pinpoint passing to find the free man has kept the United attack going a number of times this campaign.

Comparing the United attack to a machine in an industry it is clear that Romelu Lukaku would be the main frame of the machine while players like Rashford, Lingard, and Martial are important parts of the machine that keeps it working. But the machine can’t work without a good lubricant to keep it going and so many times, Mata has played the role of a lubricant in the United machine. He keeps the attacking moving even when it seems that things have broken down.

The fact that United’s win percentage drops to nearly half without Mata in the starting lineup than with him speaks volumes as to what he brings to the team on the pitch. Another stat that points to Mata’s importance to United is that the team scores just 1.1 goals without him in the starting lineup. The number goes up to 2.3 when Mata starts. Clearly, Mata has a positive effect on the team.

This is, in my humble opinion, outstanding for a player who was said to be on his way out with the appointment of Jose Mourinho almost two years prior. Among the traits that Mata has developed since Mourinho’s arrival at United is his work rate.

For someone criticized for not helping the team out when not in possession of the ball to someone who always tracks his runner is worthy of credit. Mata, this campaign, has often started games but rarely ends them on the pitch. This is often wrongly attributed to a lack of involvement in the game but it goes down to Mata’s increased work rate in helping out the defense.

Starting from the right and then drifting into the No. 10 position when having the ball to tracking the right back when not having the ball, Mata is doing everything he can to improve the team and impress his manager.

Even the great United teams of the past had players who did not hog the limelight but were as important as those who did. Ji-Sung Park and Darren Fletcher of the United double-winning campaign in 2009 rarely got the praise and accolades they deserved but were very important in helping the team achieve what they did.

Mata is easily a player with one of the better technical ability, better footballing IQ and understanding of the game in our squad. His style of play often goes unnoticed and under the radar due to a lack of numbers thereof but Juan Mata is a vital cog in the United machine and deserves much more appreciation than he receives.

Written by Vivek Menon

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