Manchester United in 2017 is a strange beast to analyse. The long time kings of the English football have fallen on hard times of late, having failed to crack the top 4 in two of the previous three seasons, and looking poised to achieve that feat for a second successive season. The twenty-time Champions of England have come a long way since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down…
And yet, despite the continued decline, Manchester United appear to be healthier than ever. Thanks to numerous money-spinning commercial dealings, United are in a position of financial strength, and, in spite of a vastly inferior league standing to years previous, are managing to attract some of the premiere names in world football. I wrote a while back about how Ed Woodward coveted Jose Mourinho to help aid his continued Real Madrid-ification of the club, and nowhere is that more true than in United’s dealings in the transfer market.
After all, how many Europa League clubs can boast an attacking front made up of the most expensive teenager in football, a man who has played for no less than seven genuine European powers, England’s top goalscorer, the next big academy prospect, a guy who contributed to 50 goals in Germany last season… I could go on. I won’t, because that’d be really long. But you get what I’m saying: seemingly, the further United fall, the more people want to play for them. Huge names are still linked with the club: Paul Pogba, one of the world’s top midfield talents returned to the club he grew up at despite no Champions League football, for example. Antoine Griezmann looks set to make the switch in the summer. It’s utterly ridiculous.
And yet, with this incredible star-power at the club, with all the ego you could ever want, United’s brightest light is a guy from Burgos; a sleepy city in Northern Spain. Manchester United’s valuable cog the (attacking) machine wasn’t signed in the first wave of “Gaal-actico” signings, nor was he part of the quartet that opted to follow Jose Mourinho’s lead. He joined the club in the second half of the doomed David Moyes era, to the tune of a (then) club-record £38 million.
Juan Mata, frozen out by the aforementioned Mourinho at Chelsea, has found himself a home at Manchester United. Speculation around his future picked up when Mourinho signed initially, with many expecting Mata to be moved on before he was given a proper chance. That speculation grew ever louder in August, when he was humiliated in front of 90,000 people in the Community Shield, finding himself subbed off in added time, only 30 minutes after being brought on. The dreaded double-sub.
Yet his spirit did not waver, and he found himself starting a week later in the side’s league opener. He even managed to pick up the game’s first goal, one of 6 he’s managed in the league this season. Since then, Mata appears to have won Mourinho’s trust, being featured heavily in the general rotation of the squad.
This can be said of his entire Manchester United career, in truth. Despite a general adoration from the Old Trafford faithful, Mata has always found himself on the periphery of the squad; never seen as a sure-fire starter, no matter how much he shows he ought to be. David Moyes couldn’t figure out how to get the ball in the net: it would be pointless asking him to play Mata where he should be played. But van Gaal opted to force a disinterested di Maria into his plans, despite, what was statistically, Mata’s best season at United to date. Only a suspension to di Maria gave Mata the chance to properly come out at United, most prominently in a 2-1 United victory over Liverpool at Anfield.
The season following the stunning overhead kick, the signing of Memphis and Martial, combined with the emergence of Rashford and Lingard, and the continued insistence of finding space for Fellaini and Rooney, limited Mata’s opportunities once more. And yet he held strong, doing everything asked of him, and was duly rewarded with a start in the FA Cup final, and a goal to equalise the tie. In van Gaal’s two years at Manchester United, Mata managed to put together two 10 goal seasons.
Tussling with some of the heaviest of heavyweights, United’s diminutive genius proves himself, time and again, as one of the most consistent players on the books. In half as many games, a large percentage of which saw him either subbed on or off, he is a goal from equalling his tally season. As Phil Neville so often observes on Twitter: “He always scores”. While this isn’t quite true, the regularity in which Mata pops up with, or seemingly pops up with, a goal is pretty alarming.
His vision for a final pass remains unparalleled among the United squad. And his movement along the supporting areas is a joy to behold. For a man that constantly looks like he’s running through treacle, Juan Mata sure knows how to glide between pockets of space.
He doesn’t change his hair style every 3 days. He doesn’t refer to himself in the third person. He doesn’t have an emoji, he doesn’t have his own line of clothing. Juan Mata is a humble, honest gentleman who has two degrees from Madrid’s Universidad Camilo José Cela, writes a weekly blog that ends with him hugging the audience, and once said his wage was “obscene”. He’s thoroughly likable, basically.
Yet, what’s more impressive about the man, is how he has made himself a key piece of this puzzle. Yes, Ibrahimovic and Pogba start every week. Yes, Carrick is utterly indispensible. What I mean is, of those players in between the lines – Martial, Rashford, Lingard, Mkhitaryan, Rooney – Mata has risen above all those in the pecking order, for sheer consistency. Clearly Mourinho has noticed, as Mata has captained United more than a handful of times this season.
When you’re playing two games a week, it’s impossible to play every week; yet Mata finds himself involved in just about every game. And when United walk out for the EFL Cup Final, he’ll no doubt find himself pulling the strings once again.