As Manchester United lined up to play Manchester City in early September, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho created one of the best storylines in football, one of overlapping adventures, friendship, football, and enemies, and Manchester witnessed a massive rivalry that followed the two massive managers around the world. Now, though, as United prepares to play against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, there is a storyline just as great, involving a Spaniard and a changing man; involving two globalized football clubs.
The story’s best starting point was during Real Madrid’s clash with Manchester United in the Champions League, one where United was the better team on the pitch and lost a rough match to Jose Mourinho’s rampant Real side. Mourinho’s tremendous respect for Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson became clear then, as did the rumours that it was he who wanted most to be Ferguson’s heir to the biggest job in football.
As Mourinho departed from Real Madrid and Ferguson retired from football, many expected the Special One to end up at United, but, with doubts over his suitability to the United job, United decided to bring in David Moyes instead. Moyes, though a disaster at United, became a key part in the meeting of ends in this story.
Mourinho on David Moyes: “The club gave him an incredible trust when they chose him to be the next Man Utd manager after Sir Alex. It’s a club with a fantastic culture. They believe in stability. They believe in the power of the manager. They believe in the support of the manager.”
Mourinho, therefore, ended up at Chelsea and claimed it was what he wanted in the first place. Manchester United became a shadow of itself, while Chelsea, rising to prominence, had a misfit of a star footballer. Their two-time player of the year and one of the most loved players to ever turn up in blue, Juan Mata, was found on the bench, misfit to Jose Mourinho’s tactics as phenomenal a player as he was.
Mourinho on Chelsea Job: “I am where I want to be. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
If Moyes wasn’t in need of a hero at United, he likely would’ve stuck with Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney behind Robin van Persie, but poor performances and pressure mounted, and Mata became available. It was a no-brainer to dish £37 million on one of the best players in the Premier League, yet to reach his prime age and from a rival club. Mourinho didn’t force Mata out, as was clear then (though the United critics like to claim he did) but Mata had to leave and instantly became a favourite at United.
Mourinho on Mata: “I feel sorry that I didn’t make him happy, but football is football. I build a team around Oscar in that position and on the sides the other players are doing very, very well. Juan is not comfortable on the sides. He tried very hard and he did very well in some matches, but it’s not his natural habitat. So when a club like Man United comes and for sure they told him he’s going to play in his favourite position and he wants to go, he goes.”
As key to the movements of the storyline as David Moyes was Louis van Gaal, who changed the player Mata is to this day. Mata has since become one of United’s hardest-working players, versatile, and able to play even central midfield. Under Mourinho, Mata has not only been a squad member but a starter in the majority of games.
Mata on Mourinho (looking back at Chelsea relationship): “For better or for worse, we had no relationship, there was no dialogue. I was not happy, but always gave the most and respected my colleagues. You never know what will happen in life.”
Mourinho made Chelsea the respectably gritty side they are and continue to be. United inches closer to the side they were three years ago (in terms of quality only) and in the process, gained a player who is world class at his best; Mata is not only a great player on the pitch but an incredible person off it.
Mata represents the difference in football between now and three years ago, stylistically and tactically. More importantly, though, he represents Mourinho’s dedication to United’s cause and his willingness to work to the club’s standards, with more attacking football and appreciation of all kinds of football.
This phenomenal story shows the evolution of football tactics and the change of players, managers and genuine people. As good as any narrative written by the best of authors, every character, every moment and every training session continues to be important to the storyline of Mata, Mourinho, Chelsea, and United, and when they cross paths today, it will undoubtedly be a moment to witness.