Can Mata be the catalyst to United’s re-ignition ?
Jose Mourinho’s arrival at Old Trafford sparked rumors of Juan Mata leaving Manchester United, but it’s likely that the Portuguese is the one now who’s closer to the door. Mata who’s a Champions League, European Championship, Europa League, and World Cup winner has probably seen it all and won it all. However it’s his off-field contributions that mainly grabs attention nowadays, that’s of course in addition to his light and like-able character.
The rumors behind his exit when Mourinho was announced as the United manager probably originated from the idea that he’s not a ‘Mourinho type of player’. His deficiencies in defence shouldn’t negate his incredible football brain though. In terms of creating chances and occupying the space, he’s the type of player that most clubs would dream of.
Mata’s arrival at United didn’t coincide with the club’s greatest time. Moyes couldn’t handle the pressure of a United manager and Van Gaal’s football was too static to the extent that the whole of Twitter is now familiar with ‘that’ Simpsons GIF. Eventually, it was Mourinho who took the throne. His Europa League and League Cup triumph in the first two seasons couldn’t blind the viewers from the serious issues United have in attack, a clear lack of an identity. A star studded lineup that can’t function together to reach their full potential.
In Mourinho’s usual 4–2–3–1 Mata occupied the right flank but regularly roamed towards the center leaving space for the onrushing Antonio Valencia. Valencia’s absence deprived United of his runs on the right side, and in search of an offensive style of play Mourinho opted for the 4–3–3 in his third season. The switch of formations meant that Mata’s place was in danger as he lacked the pace needed to start in the front three, and in midfield Fellaini booked his place with two impressive performances against Burnley and Watford. It was against less physical sides that Fellaini’s disadvantages began to appear and United returned to their eternal problem of not creating enough chances.
Against Newcastle, Mourinho found himself two goals down and reacted by bringing on Mata instead of Bailly and switching to his beloved 4–2–3–1. Poor chance creation persuaded the Portuguese manager to tweak the system at halftime, Fellaini was subbed on instead of McTominay who was at the time playing as a center back and switched back to a 4–3–3 with Pogba as the deep lying playmaker, Mata on the right and Fellaini on the left slightly closer to Lukaku. In the inside right position Mata found plenty of space to create freely as Kenedy was busy tracking Young’s runs and Newcastle’s midfield chose to maintain their compactness over pressing. Mata was a huge factor behind the comeback as he scored the first goal from a curling free kick and it was his run into space which originated the second goal before Martial and Pogba combined.
His impressive second half earned him a starting place at Stamford Bridge when United traveled to face Chelsea. In his favourite number ten position Mata started the game, accompanied with this gift was the defensive duty of man marking Jorginho, the chief operator behind Sarri’s war rig. Surprisingly, Mata performed his defensive duties at a decent level limiting Jorginho to his third least number of passes (74) in a Premier League game. One pass more than his total against Liverpool’s impressive pressing template, and eight passes more than his total in the first game of the season against Huddersfield. United still lacked chances to create any source of threat and it wasn’t until the second half that they showed more eagerness to win the ball and move forward. Mata linked both sides of the pitch well and his main act came when he ran into the space behind Alonso, nicking the ball from David Luiz’s path to finally give it to Rashford who set up Martial for the second goal.
Lukaku’s goal drought saw him drop to the bench for Everton’s visit to Old Trafford. Mourinho went back to 4–3–3 after two cameo appearances for the 4–2–3–1 against Chelsea and Juventus. Mata’s new task was on the right side of the front three with Rashford leading the line in the absence of Lukaku. His task was to roam to the inside left channel to offer an extra man between the lines to combine with Pogba and keep Martial in a 1 v 1 situation without any doubling from Everton’s midfield. Mata wasn’t the star of the show but he helped both Pogba and Martial excel in United’s most convincing win in a while.
Three different roles in three games for Juan Mata, the only common is his good performance in all three. Mata brings to United movements into the space and linking up while offering the ability to create chances. This adds more dynamism to United’s static attack and decreases the possibility of any U-shaped ball circulation. Mourinho’s horrific start to his third year could be his last if United don’t show any signs of improvement. After all these years, Mata might be Mourinho’s salvation.