Cast your minds back to the 25th January 2014. David Moyes clinched the services of Chelsea midfielder Juan Mata for a fee of just over £37 million, a club record at the time. On a personal note, upon hearing this news I was absolutely ecstatic. I honestly believe it’s the best piece of business the club has done for years. Not in terms of financial gain if and when United eventually sell him on but in terms of value for money and to prove a point to the sceptics who were to believe Manchester United couldn’t attract big name players post Sir Alex Ferguson.
To steal a player from one of our biggest rivals is one thing but to sign the man who had won the Player of the Season awards two years running during his time at Stamford Bridge, and also a man who had contributed towards countless number of goals playing a big part in the clubs success particularly in Europe. It just makes you think what possible reason Jose Mourinho had to leave him on the bench at the beginning of the 2013/14 season.
It could be argued that Mata is slower on the counter attack compared to his former team mate Oscar who often kept the Spaniard out of the side. It’s also evident that Oscar has a higher work ethic and presses the ball in the opposition’s half, such a desire to win back possession is something that Mourinho has always encouraged with his players. But purely from a technical standpoint, I think most people would still pick Mata over Oscar if they could pick one of the two to fill in that ‘Number 10’ position.
Regardless, I was over the moon Mata chose to join Manchester United, and he made his presence felt immediately showing composure on the ball and an eye for that defense splitting pass that we simply couldn’t get before we signed him. In the 15 league appearances he made following his transfer, he scored six goals and set up four, including one in his debut match against Cardiff. Alongside him however Tom Cleverley, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Marouane Fellaini could only muster three assists and two goals between them over the entire season, which put Mata in a league of his own and it would seem things would only get better under the coaching and guidance of current manager Louis van Gaal.
And things certainly seemed to be looking that anyway. Think back to the International Champions Cup which United won during pre-season in the United States of America. Yes obviously it doesn’t matter what we achieve during pre-season when we can’t do it back home in the Premier League, but the style of football we were playing then is what we should be utilising week in week out because it was very difficult to defend against. And bear in mind that these teams we beat and kept the ball effectively against weren’t the MLS All-Stars or any of the other sides we play during our pre-season tours, these were some of Europe’s best. Real Madrid and Roma to name just two.
And at the heart of all this, was Mata. His link up play with Ander Herrera beside him, Fletcher just behind him (obviously he can’t play his part there now but Carrick or Blind are more than capable of playing there) and Rooney floating around ahead of them both, was nothing less than sublime and brilliant to watch. One play in particular against Inter Milan where all four of the players I mentioned above pass the ball brilliantly at pace, they’re all in close proximity of one another which makes it easier to play one touch football, add in the quick, short runs off the ball into small pockets of space where Mata and Herrera specialise, and you’ve got something that almost resembles the tiki-taka style you’re more accustomed to see at the Nou Camp. And that’s certainly not a bad thing obviously!
So it upsets me that now in the Premier League we are resorting to a style of play where we’re patient in possession, happy to keep the ball with defenders who aren’t comfortable in possession, waiting for these gaps to appear on the pitch instead of forcing them ourselves and then if all else fails, lump it up to Fellaini (who is starting to become a useful asset admittedly) and hope for the best. Yes it’s won us valuable points and kept us in the FA Cup but it’s awful to watch.
And more recently he hasn’t featured in these games. Games where we have been crying out for a touch of brilliance that Mata can provide. West Ham away for example, he should’ve played then. Had it not been for Blind’s equaliser I think more people like myself would be calling for Mata to play more in the same manner that they’ve been calling for Herrera to play more often, and rightly so.
I still class Juan Mata as among the best creative midfielders in the world, certainly in the Premier League at least, and I feel he isn’t as appreciated by Louis van Gaal as much as he should be. As mentioned earlier the tiki-taka like style of possession used in pre-season is something we should definitely be using now, with Mata and Herrera being among the first names to make the team sheet each week. Their creativity and natural chemistry gives us that bit of unpredictability which is what we’ve lacked when we play just one of them or neither. And also, Juan Mata is probably one of our best, if not the best set piece taker in our entire squad. So at the very least, if we must play ugly and find the big Belgian’s head. At least let it be the Spanish magician to be one supplying him.