In the space of four years, Juan Mata has gone from being widely regarded as one of the Premier League’s best players to one of its greatest enigmas. There has still been the odd flash of brilliance from the Spaniard and he has put in one or two improved performances in recent weeks, but his inconsistency and struggles in the latter days of his Chelsea career and now at Manchester United are a little hard to figure out given the enormous talent and ability to unlock defences that he possesses.
The Chelsea situation was a bit easier to understand. Mata and Mourinho never felt like it was going to be a great match with the Portuguese boss well known for his preference to more disciplined players who offer a bigger defensive contribution even in the attacking midfield roles.
However United would have been confident they could get the Mata that performed brilliantly in his first two seasons at Stamford Bridge. His £37 million switch to Old Trafford in January 2014 seemed a smart move by the Red Devils who had looked devoid of creativity under David Moyes and he certainly provided a much needed boost to Manchester United’s stuttering season.
Mata seemed destined to become one of United’s two or three most important players from the moment he arrived at the club but over two years on he is yet to fully cement himself as the linchpin of the side.
The Spaniard has been available for every one of Manchester United’s Premier League games over the past two seasons but was left on the bench 11 times last term despite being clearly their most creative player. The cautious approach of Louis Van Gaal has been much criticised by United fans and Mata may feel he hasn’t had much luck with managers during his time in England.
His last three have been Mourinho, Moyes and Van Gaal and all three have a reputation for a disciplined approach and none of the trio have really given Mata the licence to roam and cause havoc in opposition defences.
He is in many ways the classic number 10 perhaps best suited to playing as the star player in weaker teams, where managers are more willing to compensate for his limited defensive contribution.
This term, Mata has started all but three of United’s Premier League games but it has again been an unconvincing campaign from him. United fans have criticised Van Gaal for his tendency to play Mata wide on the right rather than through the middle but the stats do back the Dutchman up.
Mata has scored 5 times and created 4 goals in 19 appearances on the right with just 1 goal and 2 assists when played as the forwardmost of the central midfield trio as he has done on 13 occasions.
However he has got worse rather than better this season. He had scored 4 and created 4 by the end of September in all competitions, but has only contributed a further 3 assists since then which is a fairly dire return given he is supposed to be the team’s chief creator of chances.
With United having endured another disappointing season there is likely to be more serious soul searching this summer with the club likely to miss out on Champions League qualification.
The prospect of Jose Mourinho replacing Louis Van Gaal must fill Mata with dread given how quickly he was disposed of by his old boss at Chelsea. However the thought of Van Gaal staying wouldn’t be a huge boost either with the stubborn Dutchman highly unlikely to alter his approach to better accommodate Mata.
Unless United bring in a manager with a more attacking mentality, a summer move, perhaps back to La Liga, might be the best thing for Mata. Right now his career is in decline when at 27 he should be playing his best football.
His first two seasons at Chelsea and prior to that his form for Valencia will ensure interest is still high as clearly there is still a fine player in there somewhere.
Written by Mark Sochon
Follow Mark on Twitter @tikitakagol
Check out his brilliant blog on all things La Liga, Tiki-Taka-Gol!
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