With the arrival of the Special One at Manchester United this summer, Juan Mata’s days at Old Trafford seemed to be numbered, after José Mourinho had controversially sold the Spanish midfielder to Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United side during his second stint at West London outfit Chelsea.
To intensify affairs, even after coming off the bench Mata was hauled off after featuring for a mere half an hour of Manchester United’s FA Community Shield clash against Leicester City, where the Red Devils won 2-1. Although Sky Sports News now reports that the Spaniard is likely to remain at Old Trafford despite being out of favour with the Portuguese manager.
Mourinho told the Daily Star: “He (Mata) is here and he works hard. He knows that I know he is a good player and that he has a place in this squad Until August 31st, the market is open for every one of my players if they are not happy, but to be fair I think he is happy. I am not expecting him to ask to leave, I am expecting him to do what he is doing now, which is to fight for a place.”
With a Europa League campaign on the agenda, United are in need of a large squad in order to effectively negotiate their many fixtures this coming campaign, Though with this being the situation at Chelsea before the Spanish midfielder found his first team opportunities increasingly limited, can we expect to see Juan Mata in the starting eleven regularly at Old Trafford this season, or will he feature in a peripheral role under Mourinho once more?
What confounded supporters and pundits across the country regarding Mourinho’s relationship with the Spaniard back at Chelsea was that despite Mata having won Chelsea’s player of the year award for two consecutive seasons, he Portuguese regularly omitted him from his starting line-up before sanctioning his £37 million move to Old Trafford. The issue however, is more down to the style of play of the midfielder than anything else it seems, and his future may depend on whether he brings his own style of football to Manchester United, or whether he plans to bring the fast, flowing, exciting football that he promised supporters upon his arrival.
Using Chelsea as an example, Mourinho favoured an attacking midfield trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian to operate behind a lone forward. The issue with Juan Mata was that he didn’t put in the necessary defensive work of tracking back and helping the team defend as a unit, and therefore he would not include him in the side despite what he contributed in attack.
The Independent quizzed Mourinho on Mata’s lack of first-team appearances back in 2013, to which he said: “It is one thing to play with Ramires and Oscar closing down opponents on each side, and Mata as a Number Ten behind a striker with his clever assists, clever passes and fantastic actions because he has great talent”.
“But it is another thing to adapt to the way we want to play. In this moment, Oscar is my Number Ten, and if anyone tells me that Oscar has not been Chelsea’s best player this season, I’d have to disagree. I have to prove to the fans that I am good. Now Mata must do the same”.
If Mourinho’s set-up in the Community Shield is to set any precedent at Manchester United, we can expect to see the same system deployed at Old Trafford this season, we may just make things difficult to Juan Mata to break into the first team. With two deep-lying midfielders, on this occasion Carrick and Fellaini, the three behind loan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will more than likely be expected to track back to help the midfielders when the team has to defend like at Chelsea. Only at Chelsea he had a creative lynchpin in Oscar who would also put in the running. At Manchester United there isn’t necessarily such a figure in the centre.
Wayne Rooney may be a good midfield engine who may be capable of playing box-to-box, but his role is now more of a maestro to pick passes behind the forward given the decline of his pace, with two creative wide players in Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard of which the latter is most likely to track back and assist his midfield. He has more defensive options in Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin, though he needs creativity and nip to operate in the attacking trio and that may just be where the call comes for Juan Mata, or alternatively his compatriot Ander Herrera.
For Mata to feature however, it is likely Mourinho will not just rely on his creativity but also his willingness to assist defensively, though it isn’t just the ‘Number Ten’ role Mata may be isolated to, and he may in fact more likely find himself featuring as a creative outlet out wide in the attacking-midfield three rather than operating centrally.
However with the arrivals of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and more recently Paul Pogba, as well as having Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard at his disposal, Mata may find the going tough to force his way in unless he can create enough on the pitch when his chance comes. Though with Marouane Fellaini and Bastian Schweinsteiger facing uncertain futures at Old Trafford, Mata may find himself with only Jesse Lingard to compete with on the right flank if Mourinho chooses to deploy Paul Pogba in a deeper, playmaking role to add a different dimension to the more defensive midfield rather than operate with two defensive screens for the rear-guard.
Were Mourinho to do this however, if Mata were to be selected he would be relied on defensively more than ever before with only one recognised defensive midfielder, likely to be Michael Carrick, featuring in the team, with Pogba helping link the defence to the attacking trio and forward. He would have to but in the work tracking back on the flanks, though it is also likely that as Pogba roams forward there will be interchange between him and Wayne Rooney in the centre. Therefore if Mata were ever to be played centrally in the Number Ten role currently occupied by the England skipper, he would have the responsibility of dropping in when Pogba drives forward, something atypical to the Spanish midfielder’s game.
Tactically, it will depend on whether Mourinho judges Mata to have adapted enough to be able to fit into what he expects from his three attacking midfield players, though much will also lie on whether the relationship between player and manager has improved since their days at Stamford Bridge.
By the end of Mata’s time at Chelsea, himself and Mourinho were barely on speaking terms, if the two even spoke at all, with Mata saying in an interview with Spanish newspaper El País, via the Independent, that “for better or for worse, they had no relationship”. The midfielder widely known for being docile and mild-mannered outed his frustration as it came to the fore in his final appearance as a Chelsea player; a 3-0 win over Southampton. He blatantly ignored his manager and complained to his teammates on the bench about the way he was being treated.
Mourinho in response was unable to resist a swipe at the midfielder after his departure from Stamford Bridge, labelling him a player “with status” who given his standing at the club prior to Mourinho’s arrival was unwilling to accept his coach’s decision not to use him as his favoured Number Ten player. Though he did acknowledge it was a “difficult” decision to leave him out and opt instead to use Oscar in the role and build the attack around him.
Much therefore will depend on whether the two can repair their relationship and see eye-to-eye regarding Mata’s role at Old Trafford. At Chelsea, Mourinho limited him to a central role, whereas now it seems the Speical One is prepared to give him an opportunity pushed further wide, which may give him the chance to feature more regularly under the Portuguese at United. Mourinho never did use the term “luxury player” to describe the midfielder during his time at Chelsea, but it was the overly extravagant style of Mata over his tendency to put in the hard work and grit which was behind Mourinho shoe-horning him out of the Stamford Bridge exit door.
Mata though me may still be stylish in his creativity, seems to have adjusted for the better regarding matching Mourinho’s style under Louis Van Gaal’s oratory. The Spaniard formerly happy to be a “luxury player” who scores goals and provides assists in the Number Ten role, found himself in a key position out wide where his craft can benefit the team. He was always capable of this having played out wide during his days at Valencia, but he was able to work well defensively on the flank in Van Gaal’s side, so why can he now not do the same for Mourinho?
His prospects in the Number Ten role are severely limited by the presence of Rooney and in the defensive responsibilities Mourinho will allocate to that player. Mata has far more of a chance of featuring on the right side for United, and with competition likely to thin, his prospects may be good if he can do enough to impress his manager.
To do that, the two men will need to resolve their differences and make Old Trafford a clean slate. With Mourinho now unlikely to usher Mata towards a United exit, the indications are there that he will be given a second chance to impress his manager, at a new club, in a different role. At Chelsea despite his best efforts he never seemed to do enough for Mourinho to take notice. This time he just might, and his future at Old Trafford beyond this season may well depend on him doing just that. He is too talented to be wasted on the bench, and with a point to prove United fans can look forward to seeing the best of Juan Mata as he seeks to seize his opportunity this campaign, the outcome of which spectators can eagerly await.
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