They don’t call him “El Mago” for nothing; why Juan Mata is still important to Manchester United

Juan Mata joined Manchester United from Chelsea in January 2014 for a fee of £37.1 million. His arrival at the club was particularly notable, as he was flown from London to United’s training ground via helicopter. The diminutive Spaniards attire on the day also proved to be a teaser for what he would bring to the team; Mata’s ability on the ball is perhaps matched only by his near impeccable dress sense.

He signed a four-and-a-half year contract at the club, which was recently renewed for a further two years, with the option of a third. Mata, 31, has also been tipped to become a club ambassador upon his retirement from football, which may or may not be at United. This is in part due to his charitable contributions to the Common Goal organisation, where he is one of the most prominent members.

Mata still has a lot to offer to Manchester United, despite his inevitable decline as he approaches retirement. He offers United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær a vastly different set of skills to the other forward players at his disposal. Like most Spanish attacking midfielders, Mata possesses good ball control allied with the vision to pick out a pass and create a chance. This has earned him the nickname “El Mago” (Spanish for “the magician”).

He has often been unable to produce his best when played on the right wing, as he does not possess the natural traits associated with the United wingers of old. While he does possess quick feet to get himself out of danger when needed, Mata himself does not have the raw pace to match some of United’s other forwards. But, having never relied on sheer speed to get the better of opponents, Mata often makes use of speed of thought to outwit opposition defences.

He is perhaps also the only specialist playmaker in United’s first-team squad; there are still doubts over the best position for youth team graduates Angel Gomes and Andreas Pereira, while Jesse Lingard relies on his pace and movement off the ball when played behind the striker/s. In contrast to the energetic Lingard and robust Paul Pogba, who have previously occupied the role in Solskjaer’s United, Mata offers a certain composure and surety whenever he plays in “the hole”.

He is often able to pick out spaces to occupy in between the lines of the oppositions defensive shape and has also regularly demonstrated an awareness of where spaces might appear for his teammates as well as being instinctively able to understand how that particular teammate would be able to fully exploit this space. As a result of this, he has developed productive combinations with forward players who are looking to profit from his skills.

This is exemplified by his previous understanding with David Villa, Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba for former clubs and country, while Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have combined similarly with the Spaniard during his time at United. In addition to his skills as a playmaker, Mata is also an accomplished finisher who has scored 45 goals for United in 218 appearances for the club.

He has a number of memorable goals to his name, none more so than a match-winning brace at Anfield against Liverpool in 2015 which included a stunning scissor-kick. Mata has also regularly made important contributions during important games for his previous clubs as well as for United. He has assisted goals in the finals of the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League and FA Cup, having also scored United’s equaliser in the 2016 edition of the latter.

Last season, Mata netted the first goal in United’s comeback win against Newcastle as well as the equaliser in the win at Juventus. Both these goals, of course, were scored from direct free-kicks, which is another feature of Mata’s play that will benefit United. He brings with him a threat from set-pieces, either directly on goal or with his ability to deliver dangerous balls for other players to attack.

United fans have previously bemoaned the team’s lack of threat from corners, even when having a height advantage over the opposition. This is evidenced by United’s return of six goals from 200 corner kicks in the Premier League last season. Mata also possesses a wealth of experience, having previously played for Chelsea as well as Real Madrid Castilla and Valencia in his native Spain.

He has also earned 41 caps for the Spanish National Team, which is no mean feat given the resources available to them, particularly in midfield and attack. Mata has collected a number of winner’s medals for his country, beginning at age-group level. His biggest achievement on the international stage is undoubtedly winning the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. He has also enjoyed significant success at club level, having won the Copa del Rey with Valencia as well as the FA Cup, Champions League and Europa League with Chelsea, prior to joining United, where he has added another FA Cup and Europa League to his CV, along with an English League Cup and a Community Shield.

Mata is also a two-time winner of Chelsea’s Player of the Year award and he was also awarded the Players’ Player of the Year in 2012-13, a season which also earned him a spot in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year. He is one of a few players at United to have experienced such successes and this will be key as Solskjaer attempts to re-instil a winning mentality at the club.

Realistically, United are not going to be contenders for the 2019/20 Premier League crown. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is likely to look to the other competitions in the hopes of bringing home his first piece of silverware as United manager. Playing in the Europa League as well as the League and FA Cups against possibly weaker opposition grants Solskjaer the opportunity to rotate his squad, bringing the fringe players into play.

Mata is likely to be used in his favoured central role in these games, especially now that United have signed the speedy and lively Daniel James to provide penetration from wide areas. This also represents an opportunity for Mata to play with and perhaps lead United teams containing youth team graduates, including the similarly diminutive and skilful Angel Gomes, the athletically gifted Tahith Chong as well as the prodigious Mason Greenwood.

This, of course, is dependent on these players remaining at the club rather than going on loan although Solskjær has already promised United fans they will see more of Greenwood this season. In closing, it is worth reiterating that Juan Mata is a classy character, both on and off the pitch. He also reportedly took a pay cut to stay at United, which benefits the club as they would not have to make further alterations to the existing wage structure.

In addition to this, Mata’s decision to stay may also play a role in influencing his compatriot David de Gea to sign a second contract renewal at the club. All in all, he is a valuable member of the squad and will be of significance on the pitch, provided he is used correctly by the manager and played alongside players who can profit from his skills and experience. At the moment, United have this in abundance.

Written by Shiven Nayager

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