Has Juan Mata Been A Flop At Manchester United?
A Bright Spark
David Moyes' time in charge of Manchester United was certainly not a good era for the Old Trafford faithful; poor results against teams from both ends of the table and disharmony amongst the experienced ranks of the side led to the Scot being sacked, just eight months into a six year contract.
However, Moyes' reign also coincided with the signing of one of United's most beloved and undoubtedly talented merchants in recent years: Juan Mata.
At a time when the days were especially dark and United's first ever season out of the Premier League top four loomed closer, Juan Mata's signing provided a very brief, but much needed, reason to celebrate.
The back-to-back recipient of Chelsea's player of the season, he was an exceptionally talented, respected and accomplished individual in the world of football. His balance, agility and vision had made him an instrumental cog in Spain's rise to the top of the football pyramid, and had scooped up a Champions League, FA Cup and Europa League in his time at Stamford Bridge.
His final full season at Chelsea saw him play a whopping 64 times in all competitions, netting an absolutely sensation 20 goals from the midfield. Along with Eden Hazard, he was even nominated for the PFA Player of the Year award.
United fans could finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. A beacon of hope that could have possibly indicated an end to the mediocrity and stumbling sort of season they had been subjected to. This was a player that you could not only build around, but he was a role-model professional and ambassador for the club.
The Van Gaal Era
Louis Van Gaal arrived at Manchester United in the summer of 2014 amid great fanfare and expectation. A man who had been around the world of football longer than most, he immediately set to work amassing a front line that would, on paper at least, outgun most sides in Europe. Along with Mata, Van Persie and Rooney, in came the likes of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao.
United fans were positively salivating at the thought of all these attacking players in a team together, with many thinking that Mata's creative energies would be positively unleashed behind these forwards.
As we know, this didn't quite work out in the way Van Gaal and the fans had hoped. A combination of injuries and lack of fitness, the breakdown of the Di Maria relationship and the failure of the 3-5-2 formation led to a complete u-turn from Van Gaal. Out went the star names and in came the likes of Fellaini, Young and Blind as Van Gaal took a 'defence first' approach.
Quite ironically, it was when all of the star attacking players left the team that Mata really began to shine. In the crunch games against Liverpool and Manchester City, United's fiercest rivals, in the 2014/15 season, Juan Mata shone. His legendary bicycle kick at Anfield and the spellbinding deliveries into the City box showed the star quality United possessed, and hammered home their top four ambitions.
The following season saw Van Gaal rely more and more on Juan Mata, playing the Spaniard well over 50 times across the 15/16 campaign. United once again faltered under the pressure as the firing axe hovered precariously above Van Gaal's head all year, once again resulting in United missing out in the Champions League.
Mata however still showed more than enough for the Old Trafford faithful to stick with him, with his decisive goal in the FA Cup final being their reward as United rounded off a disappointing season with a trophy.
The Mourinho Era
Many people were, quite rightly, wondering if Mata's United career was effectively over when Jose Mourinho was appointed manager in 2016. He was, after all, the manager who had so unceremoniously brought an end to his Chelsea days.
The early signs weren't too great either; Mata was named on the bench for United's Community Shield fixture against Leicester City in August 2016. He was subbed on late in the game, yet controversially hauled back off again just a few minutes later by Mourinho. For a player usually so at ease with the game, it was shocking to see the full amount of anger etched on his face at the time.
And yet, Mata once again showed himself to be a versatile and invaluable element of yet another manager's team. Filling out if and when he was needed, Mata kept a hold of his fan's favourite tag and chipped in with vital goals and assists aplenty. In his first season under Mourinho, Mata would be instrumental in the team's conquest of the League Cup and Europa League, helping to secure United's right as a Champions League side in emphatic fashion.
Even in the league campaign, Mata netted some vital goals against the likes of Leicester, Arsenal and West Ham. Mata even grabbed the Manchester United captaincy for the first time against Burnley in 2017, a sight many a United fan were glad to see.
As Mourinho's time at the helm continued, Mata showed a huge level of versatility by accepting a role out on the right hand side of the attack, a role he had been pretty unfamiliar with up to that point. Unlike several other luxury players in the game, Mata had a burning urge to be out on the pitch playing for United, helping the team and the fans in whatever way he could.
Towards the end of Mourinho's era at United, Mata once again stepped up and showed his worth. At a time when more and more players were looking jaded and disinterested, Mata was the man to step up when it really mattered. With two stunning free kick goals against Newcastle and Juventus, it felt like he was almost singlehandedly dragging United towards some form of respectability.
The Future Under Solskjaer
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, I think, represents a huge opportunity for United fans to see a little bit more of the best from Juan Mata. Despite promising a summer of huge overhauls, United at this time do not have the wide players to play an expansive style of play, opting instead for a diamond midfield with Mata potentially at its head.
His performances at the back end of the 18/19 season was effectively an interview for Mata. It was largely believed he was going to be departing in the summer, despite Solskjaer's public praise of the midfield man, with his high wages and slightly older age working against his contract negotiations.
However the performances against Chelsea and Huddersfield in particular showcased exactly why United need someone like Juan Mata. A calming, creative presence on the pitch, he has the potential to be a vital instrument in the Norwegian's plans and tactics.
If there is one thing Mata has shown himself off as, it's a big game player. Whether it be through chance creation, or grabbing himself a crucial goal, he has so often worked some of his magic into a game desperately needing a spark. From the Palace cup final, to crunch games against Man City, Liverpool or Chelsea, he is a man that managers know they can turn to.
So Much More To Come?
Juan Mata has not singlehandedly pulled in the big trophies that potentially some United fans thought he might have done when he signed for them in 2014. That is not to say however that he hasn't delivered consistent, steady levels of success. In his time at Old Trafford, he has been instrumental in delivering a Europa League, a FA Cup, a League Cup, two Champions League finishes and another FA Cup final. It's not the trophy haul United fans are used to, but Mata's time at the club as coincided with its most unstable.
Though he is a luxury player in the same bracket as the likes of Mesut Ozil, the contrasting mentality is staggering. Similar ages and very comparable in overall quality, Juan Mata is being embraced with another contract extension, whereas most around Arsenal would do anything to get Ozil out of the club.
Whether it be through his own exploits, or his partnership with the likes of the now-departed Ander Herrera, Juan Mata is Manchester United through and through. He leaves everything on the pitch, is an absolute ambassador for the badge, and still produces a level of quality very few players can consistently serve up.
The good he does off the pitch in terms of holding the patience and balance of squad morale is going to be key for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer going forward, which means the 2019/20 season might just be Mata's most important in a United shirt...