An Impressive Square Peg: Juan Mata Perfomance Vs Liverpool

An Impressive Square Peg: Juan Mata Perfomance Vs Liverpool

Juan Mata is a conundrum that refuses to be resolved at Manchester United. On 25th January, 2014, the seemingly mythical helicopter carrying the two-time Chelsea Player of the Year finally landed on Manchester soil. Many of the Old Trafford faithful hoped and believed that the beleaguered fortunes of the post Ferguson-era were soon to see an upturn, all by the swish of a Spanish wand. It was of course unrealistic to believe that a problem as complex and multifaceted as being faced at Old Trafford would be resolved overnight by one signing, regardless of the quality of the player in question. The team’s fortunes have gradually improved as they now sit within the homely haven of the lucrative top 4. The latest thrust to their ambitions was provided by a 3-0 victory at home over historic rivals Liverpool with De Gea stealing the headlines and storming social media with an impeccable performance. Mata did more than his bit for the other half of the scoreline, providing a goal and an assist, and yet the fans’ and pundits’ verdict on the Spanish playmaker remains anything but unanimous.

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As the line-up was announced, United were expected to line up in a 4-4-2 diamond with Wayne Rooney at the tip and Mata at the left edge. However, at kick-off as Carrick slotted into the middle of a three-man defence, Mata took up his position behind the strikers in the 3-4-1-2 that ensued, with Rooney playing at the LCM position. The impetus was clearly placed on Mata to provide the attacking thrust, with the protection of Rooney and Fellaini behind him to cover his infamous defensive shortcomings. And the numbers seem to suggest a more than decent performance.

Juan Mata Heat Map against Liverpool

Juan Mata Heat Map against Liverpool

Mata had a pass completion rate of 91% (43 out of 47 successful) in a tidy game, with 17 out of 19 in the attacking third. This was in line with his pass completion for the season at 92%, which is the highest in the club. He had just one shot and only two chances created, but that seems an adequate average per game for a side with an astonishingly ruthless conversion rate nowadays. The shot came in the form of his headed goal in the 39th minute from a Van Persie flick-on off an Ashley Young cross from the left. His self-professed love for finding the back of the net often finds him making these runs in the box, even beyond the strikers. He was clearly offside this time, but the linesman didn’t seem to catch Van Persie’s touch, and credit to Mata for making the best of being at the right place at the right time.

Of the 2 chances he created in the game, one was the assist for the Van Persie goal in the 70th minute. Mata had also kick-started the counter-attack after receiving the ball at the half-way line, driving upfield and providing a penetrative pass to Rooney that split the defence and then keeping his calm from a woefully misplaced Lovren clearance. Shaping up to shoot, he completely wrong-footed a nervous Jones, and then calmly lay an open goal at the mercy of the rejuvenated Van Persie to put the result beyond doubt.

It seems harsh to criticize a player with a goal and an assist to his credit in the game. However, in the world beyond fantasy football, there are other numbers that matter as well. Of the 47 passes he completed, only 13 were forward passes (11 successful). He had only one take-on which failed, and had 1 out of 4 crosses successful. While he had the cover of Rooney and Fellaini behind him, that serves only to ease and not relieve Mata entirely of his defensive duties. His numbers indicate his well-documented defensive frailty. He did not lack in effort, attempting 9 tackles in total. However, only 1 was successful. He had 0 interceptions, 0 clearances and zero aerial duels won. The numbers are no surprise, and it is debatable whether he was even instructed to deliver on that front. However, with all due respects, this was no QPR stroll-in-the-park game at home. In high-octane clashes such as these, every additional body on the line is an asset. And it seems that the Old Trafford must learn to accept that it is not something to expect Mata to provide.

To sum up Mata’s game, he had a neat passing game, keeping the ball moving in the middle of the park. He took advantage of two errors, one defensive and the other refereeing, to help add two to the home team’s side of the board. However, he did not exactly set the game on fire. He did not provide the penetrative passing to the forwards or unlock the defence as required of his position in the hole, nor set any sort of passing rhythm with the strikers. He did not perform much of defensive duties, as perhaps he was relinquished of. However he did not compensate that with constant attacking impetus either.

Rooney is nearly undroppable as claimed by Van Gaal, and he emphasized in pre-season that he sees him in the midfield and not up front. Fellaini seems to have worked himself a fixed place in United midfield nowadays with his disruptive effectiveness. With the full backs fit, should United revert to a back four as hoped, Carrick will surely start every game. His calmness on the ball and evergreen passing range have been instrumental in keeping United ticking since his return. With Di Maria reportedly back in training, and Herrera knocking on the door, it seems apparent why Mata feels short on managerial confidence and why the rumours linking him away from the club refuse to stop. He seems to know his time is short, and is not lacking in effort to prove his worth. However, the confidence, swagger and extravagance, so crucial in that number 10 spot and that were a daily feature of his successful Chelsea days, now seem missing. His final numbers seem as impressive as ever, with 11 goals and 6 assists since his January move (Hazard has 11 goals and 5 assists in that time). However, beyond the numbers, Mata seems a luxury player. For a team aiming to challenge for the title again, they need to not only punish the teams that seem waiting to roll over, but also fight away the teams that refuse to go away. Mata seems to have retained his abilities for the former, but must rediscover his powers of the latter as well. And fast.

Juan Mata seems to be that square peg, which is a very impressive square peg, but is still a square peg, and just seems to find round hole after round hole. With the quality of the players warming themselves up to fitness on the sidelines, Mata will need to be not just good but truly exceptional to extinguish the fuse on his Manchester United time bomb. Until then, the fuse just seems to get shorter and shorter. Do not expect those transfer rumours to stop any time soon.

(Statistics courtesy Squawka, FourFourTwo and WhoScored)