Jamie Carragher has described Juan Mata as ‘underrated’ and ‘among the best in his position’ following his excellent performance against Arsenal on Saturday.
The Liverpool legend was speaking on Monday Night Football for Sky Sports and was keen to praise the United midfielder for his performances in the biggest games.
“I think we’re looking at one of the most underrated players in the Premier League.”
Labelling a player of Mata’s quality as underrated seems absurd given his illustrious career. Mata has won the Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup, World Cup and the European Championships, and is still only 28. Yet the Spaniard has often gone under the radar despite his exceptional ability. While it’s impossible to say exactly why that is, Carragher has his theory.
“I think the reason he doesn’t get that credit the others get is that he played his first two years here with Chelsea, then [Jose] Mourinho comes in – the ‘best manager in the world’ – and gets rid of him so everyone thinks ‘Mourinho can’t be wrong, so there must be something wrong with Mata’.
“He goes to Manchester United, but he’s not a Manchester United player, he hasn’t got any pace and the fee is well over the odds for him. But what No 10 has got pace?”
To a certain extent, history has counted against him. He joined United in 2014 during David Moyes’ failed regime. At £37.1m the fee seemed excessive, but the quality he would surely bring to United allowed many to overlook what was then a club record signing. Unfortunately, United floundered, finished seventh in the league and Mata’s impact was minimal.
The following season, while United improved to finish in fourth and qualify for the Champions League, Mourinho was leading Mata’s former club Chelsea to another Premier League title. Despite his growing influence at Old Trafford, including two goals in a memorable win at Anfield, the growing consensus was that Mourinho had made the right decision in ditching the Spanish midfielder.
But now the pair are reunited and Mata is playing the best football of his career. Mourinho has relied on him as a senior member of his starting XI and Mata has repaid that faith with a string of fantastic performances. There is no doubt that he has gone up a level and Carragher believes he deserves more credit.
“I think it’s about time now that we start looking at Mata in these group of players – Kevin De Bruyne, Philippe Coutinho, David Silva, Eden Hazard – as one of the top players in the Premier League, which he is and has been.
“It’s not a flash in the pan. He’s been here five or six years, and he should start getting a lot more credit.”
One of the most impressive aspects of Mata’s time at Manchester United is his level of performance in the biggest matches and the biggest moments. His double against Liverpool, including a sensational overhead kick, led some United fans to dub the ground ‘Juanfield’ in his honour. Just a few weeks later, Mata was back at it, scoring another goal in a big game, this time in a 4-2 win in the Manchester derby.
A year later he provided the assist for the winning goal at the Etihad in another derby and scored the equalising goal in the FA Cup Final against Crystal Palace. He also found the net at important moments during the run-in, scoring the only goal in crucial wins over Watford and Norwich as United chased Champions League qualification.
Even this season, Mata has scored the winning goal against Manchester City and another crucial strike at home to Arsenal. When the big moments come around, Juan Mata performs.
It is his record against the best teams in the country that is most remarkable. Comparing his record against the supposed ‘big six’ in English football, Juan Mata has a better record of goals and assists than some of the best players in world football. Once again it was Jamie Carragher who pointed out just how special Mata is.
“He’s played almost as much as anyone against ‘big six’ opposition, only bettered by Silva, so we’re not talking about a run of seven or eight games when he’s had a bit of luck and got a few goals.
“People always talk about assists with No 10’s and I don’t care what position you play in, a goal is more important than an assist for me. The minutes for goals and assists is also a massive difference between the others, almost by 15 minutes.
“So he’s getting more goals than those players in those positions. Silva only has more assists and we talk about those players and the influence that they have, but this is where it is important, in those big games.”
To score a goal or provide an assist every 148 minutes is incredible. To maintain that record against the best teams means he can do so against the best defenders and the best goalkeepers, organised by the best coaches in the most pressurised environments.
So you’d forgive yourself for thinking that a player with this kind of record was playing in a dominant team that was winning trophy after trophy and sweeping all before them. Instead, Mata is playing in a Manchester United team that has finished seventh, fourth, fifth and is currently lying in sixth place in the Premier League.
United fans have fallen in love with the diminutive Spaniard. They simply ask one question; who’s the greatest player in the Premier League?
It’s you, Juan.