It was the turn of the year in 2014, and David Moyes’ Manchester United was languishing outside the top four of the Premier League. Moyes, having to cope with the decline of United’s legendary centre-back partnership and fighting a losing battle to find a replacement for Robin van Persie’s injuries. He decided to solve the problem by signing Chelsea’s Juan Mata, a player who had gone from the elite of the Premier League to languishing on the sidelines under Jose Mourinho.
Mata had a good impact, scoring six goals and assisting five others in his 14 Premier League games for United, but he didn’t help raise United into the top four, as United finished seventh and Moyes lost his job. Mata, a two-time Chelsea Player of the Year, could not find first-team football under Mourinho because of his lack of versatility and work rate.
Now, Mourinho is at United, and his announcement flicked a switch that powered speculation surrounding Mata’s future. The most tangible link seems to be between him and Everton, and, if the rumours are true, it would be a perfect place for Mata to advance his career. Though we want to see Mata stay, perhaps there are more reasons for him to move on than just Mourinho.
Mata’s lack of versatility, as alluded to earlier, has been a selection problem for both Manchester United managers who have tried to use him. Mata is most effective in the centre of the pitch, but this reality has often forced United managers into playing a 4-2-3-1 system. Mata’s inability to occupy as many areas of the pitch as a standard central midfielder has made United static and ineffective on many occasions.
Because Mata does not drop into central midfield positions, United’s other two midfielders are held back in fixtures against powerful attacking teams. This causes United’s 4, 2, 3 and 1 to be isolated with no one moving to pick up the ball. In contrast, when Ander Herrera is playing in the central attacking position, he drops back into midfield to pick up the ball and spreads it to the wide players in the system. United’s two holding midfielders still ended up being static, but this was most likely because of Louis van Gaal’s tactics.
Mata’s problems became worse with the introduction of Wayne Rooney, though Mata is undoubtedly a better footballer, United managers persisted with Rooney behind either Robin van Persie or Anthony Martial. Mata is too talented not to be on the pitch, so he was forced onto the right-wing. United’s lack of movement and his inability to find himself in good positions either left him isolated or forced to pick the ball up in the midfield area, Mata couldn’t move from there, and when United lost the ball they struggled down the right because Mata became a defensive liability out of position. This weakness was exposed by West Ham and Tottenham late in United’s top four capitulation under Louis van Gaal.
The insistence on deploying both Mata and Rooney caused United many problems throughout van Gaal’s tenure at United, as the orthodox attacking midfielder is no longer a main part of football. David Silva’s impact on a game has diminished because he suffers from a very similar problem. United’s new signing, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, is able to play deeper in midfield or on the wing, which allows United to be comfortable with formational use, and players like this should drive the future from attacking midfield.
Finally, Mata’s best season in his career- the world class year before Mourinho was appointed, saw the entire system built to get the best out of him. In that season, Mata created 54 goals for Chelsea, but they only finished third in a league season filled with poor teams. This is a familiar problem with central attacking midfielders in football. Replacing Mesut Ozil with Angel di Maria as Real Madrid’s chief creative outlet arguably won Carlo Ancelotti’s men the Champions League, and di Maria tore defences to shreds on a weekly basis with the positional freedom in which a player like Mata cannot function.
United themselves enjoyed their best football in a long time with a free-flowing 4-3-3 system in which the roaming Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini were the outlets. In that system, Michael Carrick’s distribution allowed Fellaini and Herrera to use their best attributes to cause havoc, and the mixing with Young and Mata (who had a temporary freedom before managers realised they could punish United with their left-backs) to cause chaos.
No side using a 4-2-3-1 with a traditional playmaker has won the Champions League this decade; Jupp Heycknes’ treble-winning Bayern Munich was the closest, but they deployed Thomas Müller or Toni Kroos in the hole, and both are much more dynamic footballers than Mata. However, new Everton manager Ronald Koeman used a successful 4-2-3-1 system at his former club, Southampton, and he managed Mata at Valencia. If United’s fan-favourite Spaniard was to move to Everton, it would be perfect for these reasons.
Everton is at the level where building their system around Mata only has benefits; their football last season was all-out attacking, free-flowing, possession-oriented football. Mata would also have the necessary attacking talent to pick out; Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku were spectacular last season, while Gerard Deulofeu and Aaron Lennon represent direct threats on goal. Mata could, and probably would be one of the best footballers in the Premier League again, which he likely can’t do at United.
Mata has been a leader and a fan favourite for his short-lived three years at United, and it says enough about him that his standout attribute is his incredible professionalism and ingenuity, attributes that are often gone in football. United could be saying goodbye to yet another leader, a player who picked them up in a time of dark and tried harder than anyone to carry his weight. However, as I’ve already stated about his counterpart, Wayne Rooney (albeit for different reasons), it could be time for Mata to move on.
By moving to Everton, Mata would be helping a team with massive potential step towards it, and he would be able to do things he never got the opportunity to do at Manchester United or under Jose Mourinho. United fans love the Spaniard as much as any other player at the club, but bidding farewell would be best for him and Old Trafford. Mata will forever be a part of United, whether he’s at Old Trafford or not, only a true Red Devil would score a bicycle kick at Anfield.