When it was announced that Jose Mourinho would be the next manager of Manchester United, fans were divided between his obvious success and his habit of dividing the media and the dressing room. One person who probably wasn’t divided was United star Juan Mata, who was forced to leave the club because Mourinho did not give him playing time at Chelsea.
Mata, who is now a fan-favourite at United, was sidelined because of his lack of work rate and versatility, despite the fact he was Chelsea’s Player of the Year for two successive seasons. He then decided he needed to move on to make his career progress, and he was subsequently sold to United, where he picked up six goals and five assists in 14 Premier League appearances under David Moyes. Moyes’ tenure didn’t last forever, though, and after being one of many players who didn’t have a tactical home under Louis van Gaal, he now finds himself in a similarly cyclical dilemma.
Last time, Mata at least had the support of being Chelsea’s greatest asset, and he commanded a great fee as a result. This time, however, he’s three years older and has regressed as a footballer, meaning he almost has no claim to a place in Mourinho’s side. United knows that, if they can get anything even in the same ballpark as the previous fee, they would recover the fees for both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so any approaching clubs with money will have significant bargaining power. However, it seems there is also a cost for United to allow Mata to leave. According to Manchester Evening News, the decision to sell Mata would be very unpopular in the dressing room.
The same report states that Mourinho pleased the squad by offering an extension to club vice-captain Michael Carrick, and while Mata does not represent the longevity and leadership of Carrick, he is still one of the most universally loved figures in world football. United left-back Luke Shaw famously described Mata as one of the nicest footballer’s he’s met, and that seems to be the opinion of most United fans who love Mata’s intent to be connected with them. Through his blog, his YouTube channel and his general presence around United’s Carrington training ground, Mata has displayed himself as a personal, lovable figure who would be missed by everyone if he left Manchester United.
However, it would be incorrect to suggest that Mata hasn’t struggled at United over this past year. There doesn’t seem to be a direct role for him in any tactical system, as he gets marked out of games in the centre of the pitch and exposed defensively at Chelsea. As much as Mourinho probably admired Mata as a person, he pinpointed the tactical problems with Mata at Chelsea and now he’s experiencing the same at United. It seems as if pure central playmakers without much else to offer are holding teams back as a collective, as Mata left before United won the Premier League, Mesut Ozil left Real Madrid the year they won the Champions League and Manchester City’s David Silva is being shunted around the midfield in a similar fashion to Mata.
While it could upset the players and fans, it seems as if it could be the right time for Mata to bid farewell to United, so he can spend the best years of his career playing the best football of his career. One question fans will ask themselves is regarding other players who can’t find a role in any United system. If Wayne Rooney stays and Mata leaves, why does Rooney get the benefit of the doubt over a player who hasn’t hindered United nearly as much? Why do United managers continue to persist with Marouane Fellaini even though he clearly doesn’t benefit the other footballers on the pitch? Most importantly, why does getting the best of these players become such a priority that the likes of Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ander Herrera, United’s real midfield talents, are hindered?
I’ll leave you with a couple of questions, pointing back to the likes of Fellaini and Rooney, who played key tactical roles in midfield while players like Shinji Kagawa and Angel Di Maria were pegs in the wrong holes as a result. Could Juan Mata have found the right path at United if it weren’t for these players? Mata isn’t the first example of an attacking midfielder who has failed at United in recent years. Also, what does that mean for the likes of Mkhitaryan and Ander Herrera, two players who showed their value in previous teams, and the latter of which showed his value when he had a key role at United? Will United recreate the midfield that won Champions League titles if they continue to hand benefits to these players, or will United continue to waste money on midfielders they won’t use properly?