Juan Mata : The survivor who adapted to Jose Mourinho’s Tactics

01Moving to the London club from Valencia in 2011, Mata had amassed 18 goals and 25 assists in his first two seasons of Premier League football. Needless to say, he took to the English game well.

In part, that’s because Mata’s footballing ability transcends the often insurmountable differences that distinguish the Spanish and English game. He is so malleable because he is so gifted, and his individual accolades at Chelsea came as no surprise following such consistently brilliant performances. It didn’t matter that he shared the changing room with the likes of Lampard, Terry, Drogba, Torres, Hazard and Essien. In those two seasons, nobody came close to Mata.

What’s next for Juan Mata? It’s only worth asking this question because the Spanish midfielder has been the most surprising survivor of Jose Mourinho’s stint at Old Trafford — even more so than Marouane Fellaini.

When Mourinho arrived at United last year, the prevailing wisdom was that Mata would immediately be sold, just as he was shortly after the manager returned to Chelsea in 2013. If someone had said then that he — not Oscar — would have the more promising future at the highest level of continental football, most people would have laughed.

Oscar joined Chelsea from Internacional as an attacking midfielder, drawing comparisons to Gerson by none other than fellow Brazil legend Carlos Alberto. In 2011, he scored a hat trick in the Under-20 World Cup final as Brazil defeated Portugal 3-2. A year later, he was beating Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon from 25 yards out in the Champions League.

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Popular wherever he has played (his thoughtful blogs were a regular highlight during several otherwise dour seasons at United), Mata has always taken responsibility when his performances — or those of the team — have been below par.

Yet here we are. While Mata celebrates a triumph in the Europa League and United’s return to the UEFA Champions League, Oscar is in China, where he has scored just one goal in 13 games and is best known for starting a fight. Life, as they say, comes at you fast.

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Mata was sold by Chelsea because he was the wrong type of player for Mourinho’s plans, while Oscar departed because he failed to become what Mourinho wished him to be. Maybe there’s a moral in there somewhere about staying true to yourself.

Oscar joined Chelsea from Internacional as an attacking midfielder, drawing comparisons to Gerson by none other than fellow Brazil legend Carlos Alberto. In 2011, he scored a hat trick in the Under-20 World Cup final as Brazil defeated Portugal 3-2. A year later, he was beating Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon from 25 yards out in the Champions League.

Yet by the end of Oscar’s time at Stamford Bridge, many of his compatriots seemed bemused by the lack of imagination in his play, and his transformation into a functional, hard-running midfielder. He is still only 25, but it seems as though his most exciting football might be behind him. Meanwhile, Mata grinds on, confirming there is strong resolve beneath his affable exterior. His career is the classic example of someone whose kindness has often been mistaken for weakness.

Popular wherever he has played (his thoughtful blogs were a regular highlight during several otherwise dour seasons at United), Mata has always taken responsibility when his performances — or those of the team — have been below par.

Consistent man in a team marred with Inconsistency

Last season, some people in Social media had started a debate which roughly concludes as

“​Even in the current inflated transfer market, £37.1 million is a lot of money. Juan Mata, Manchester United’s record signing at the time of transfer in January 2014, has not yet justified the fee. While Mata’s class is clear, the Spanish midfielder has failed to become the star man so many expected.”

He should benefit from the summer transfer window and Mourinho’s apparent plans to sign younger, faster players. But the million dollar question would be does Mourinho see him as central to his plans?

Mata completed 90 minutes just once in the Premier League last season. He was frequently taken off at around the midway mark of the second half, when the game is most in need of decisive play. Meanwhile, might Paul Pogba be pushed further forward, occupying some of the space where Mata does most of his best work?

For the time being, Mata can safely say that he has Mourinho’s confidence in the biggest matches. Though his greatest gift lies in his attacking ability, he has good discipline in possession and still rarely loses the ball in areas that would endanger his team.

Big game Player

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In order to discern Mata’s discipline and growth, one need not look further than United’s Europa League final win against Ajax. Mata was the very picture of mature, restrained distribution, retaining the ball astutely and always providing an outlet for teammates. Perhaps this adaptability and willingness to limit the natural range of his game have allowed him to survive, and even to prosper, under Mourinho.

For United to see his best, they will have to invest more heavily in the full-back positions, particularly on the right. Mourinho has often used Mata as an inside-right and allowed Antonio Valencia to overlap beyond him, but though he covers an impressive amount of ground, Mata’s combination play is one rung below elite level.

If United add a playmaker in the right-back position — someone who can not only receive quick, clever passes but also offer them — then Mata can thrive. He is at his best when playing in tight triangles, which is why he suffers when played on the same wing as Matteo Darmian. The Italian is often given a conservative set of tactical instructions, meaning Mata has few opportunities to build play.

For now, it is good to see that such a skilled operator still has a place in Mourinho’s thoughts, given how unlikely that seemed a short time ago. As United attempt to capture a league title, Mata might yet have a compelling role to play.

For the meanwhile, Mata finds himself having to compete for a place in Mourinho’s starting line-up once more. The introduction of Mkhitaryan, Lingard, Martial and Rashford further congest an already busy attacking midfield and with fans hoping Andreas Pereira should be given a run in the first team it seems that Mata will be used sparingly yet again.

The conclusion is that while Mata is undeniably a good player, he is one with clear limitations – and the focus Jose Mourinho may be elsewhere. But it goes back to the topic of debate. After all, he was essentially a panic buy to soothe United fans unsatisfied with David Moyes.  After two years it is hard to escape that assessment.

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