There has been much criticism directed the way of Manchester United’s diminutive midfielder Juan Mata since his £37.1 million move from Stamford Bridge to Old Trafford in January 2014.
Many believed at the start of the 2014/15 season, despite his impressive on-field relationship with Ander Herrera exhibited during pre-season, that Mata would be the ‘fall guy’ in the wake of United’s epic splurge into the transfer market.
It was often pointed out that Mata was yet to influence any of United’s big games, and that he was yet to justify his huge price tag. His defensive capabilities were also regularly called into question – although his detractors also hinted that he would be replaced by Angel Di Maria – and that Mata would soon become surplus to requirement under Louis Van Gaal.
Ironic then, that the stuttering Di Maria watched from the bench as Mata orchestrated the most important match of United’s Premier League campaign so far – against Liverpool on Sunday. His two brilliant goals will gain the plaudits of many, but his all round performance was extremely impressive.
Just as he did against Spurs, Mata operated from the right-hand side of midfield. The combination of Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young on the left of the pitch had blown Spurs away at Old Trafford a week prior to the Anfield match, which may have given Mata more space – and less attention – on his side of the pitch. Alberto Moreno certainly looked distracted by something, though it could easily have been Mamadou Sakho’s hair.
Arguably, Mata may only have been named in United’s starting eleven for the match with Spurs after Di Maria’s ludicrous sending off in the FA Cup clash with Arsenal. Mata has struggled to nail down a first-team place this season, but Van Gaal has indicated in the wake of the Anfield match that the former Valencia man is one of his most important players. Why then, has Mata not featured more often?
Louis Van Gaal has unbelievable belief in his own ‘philosophy’. Some call it stubbornness; others self confidence. Marouane Fellaini has recently indicated that if you don’t play the exact way Van Gaal instructs, then you will be for the chop.
Ander Herrera has also revealed that he’s had to curb his natural instinct to try and retrieve the ball from the opposition; ball retention is important to Van Gaal, but only in the way that he dictates. If Mata didn’t fit in with whichever system Van Gaal was trialling at the time, then he wouldn’t be included. It really is as simple as that.
After United’s last two performances of course, Van Gaal is starting to show that his methods are successful, even if it has taken much longer than first expected. In the Dutchman’s defence, just because a player costs millions of pounds, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will adapt to his methods instantaneously. Footballers are human beings, despite what the press will have you believe.
Mata is also benefiting from Ander Herrera’s run in the first team. Sometimes, partnerships on the football field just work, almost instinctively. Think Yorke and Cole, or Henry and Bergkamp. On Sunday, Herrera’s sublime through ball was brushed past Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet by Mata, whose run was brilliantly spotted, and found, by his teammate.
If it was hard for Van Gaal to drop Mata after the Spurs game, then it has become almost impossible after his heroics at Anfield (or ‘Juanfield’ as it has been renamed by United fans), and while Mata may not have featured in as many games as his United colleagues, he still displays an impressive set of statistics.
In nineteen Premier League starts this season, Mata has found the net on seven occasions. He has also provided three assists for his teammates, and has a pass completion percentage of almost 90%. He makes on average at least one key pass every game, and has won the man of the match award on two occasions.
Robin Van Persie has scored only three more goals than Mata this season, despite starting twenty-four matches and playing predominantly a striker. Wayne Rooney has played seven more times than the Spaniard, yet has just one more assist to his name. Mata’s pass completion ratio is also higher than any of United’s current squad.
Mata is a firm favourite with United fans, and always interacts with them via various social media platforms, even after a defeat. His humbleness off the field endears him further to the Old Trafford faithful, and his weekly blogs are a joy to read.
The best way to get United fans to love you however?
Score two goals at Anfield – just ask Diego Forlan.