By Iwan Lehnert
It felt inevitable that Juan Mata would be unceremoniously kicked out of Old Trafford as soon as Jose Mourinho was unveiled as Manchester United’s new manager in May. What an indignity, to be sold by the same manager twice in the space of two and a half years at two different clubs. But nevermind, eh? Guess no man, no matter how disarmingly cool they may be is worth keeping around if their boss doesn’t fancy them.
This caveat has been used often when it comes to discussing Manchester United players who had looked to be all but finished at the club earlier this summer, and it’s worth repeating again here; we’re only three games into this league season, and who knows where this team and the players that are a part of it will be next May. But Mata’s continued presence at Old Trafford feels like a tiny victory, a small yet significant and pleasing aspect of the Portuguese’s time in charge at United so far, given that his career at United was marked for death at the exact moment that The Special One took over from Louis van Gaal.
This turnaround is all down to the player himself. When Mata was sold in January 2014, Mourinho noted that he preferred the industry and work-rate of Oscar behind Diego Costa for his Chelsea side. Fair enough; one £37.1m transfer later and United’s new record signing is being dropped off in a helicopter at Carrington, offering a temporary and flashy distraction from the developing train wreck that was United’s season under David Moyes. Mata’s been good, if not excellent at his time at the club so far, and has carved out something of a role for himself as United’s go-to right sided attacker despite ostensibly not being suited to playing out wide. Over the course of his time under Van Gaal, Mata looked more and more like a player willing to work hard off the ball, someone better drilled in what to do if his team isn’t in possession, even if he isn’t blessed with the same storming pace as some of his colleagues to go chasing down every lost cause. His goal against Bournemouth in United’s first league fixture offered a great example as to why Mourinho may be more willing to utilise him this time around; he chased down Ander Herrera’s off-target long ball, was well placed to capitalise on Simon Francis’ error and gobbled up the resulting chance to score gleefully. This an example of the gritty stuff, essentially, which isn’t something that Mata has ever been famed for during his career, and the more moments like these mix with his clear ability in front of goal, the harder it’ll be to remove him from the first team equation.
Whilst the resurrection of Messrs Fellaini and Valencia having been pleasing so far this term, and Daley Blind’s developing partnership with Eric Bailly reaches new heights of wonder with every passing week, there’s something special about seeing Mata remain at Old Trafford that isn’t necessarily football related, partially because he seems like such a decent human being. We don’t generally expect footballers to be great thinkers, or particularly eloquent when a microphone is placed in front of their mouths, and often, the answers we hear are from a safe, modest database of stock replies. To be fair, in many ways, Mata is about as dangerous and provocative as a stuffed flamingo at a fight club, but he’s something that we often don’t see too much of in football; he’s nice. His weekly blog is oft-derided, but when was the last time you saw any footballer take time during their week to keep a diary, to update you on what they’ve been up to, to offer even a tiny glimpse into their lives? It’s humdrum stuff, sure, but Mata as a person offers a nice change of pace to the common perception of a footballer by simply being an honest, unremarkable yet likeable guy in a sea of bravado, privacy and disconnection.
There are plenty of proper footballing reasons for United to retain Mata’s services, too. He’s arguably United’s most capable number 10, for a start, and would be this writer’s first choice to depose Wayne Rooney in the position if the England captain’s output continues to deteriorate. Even as a right-sided attacker, Mata can offer vision, neat passing, great touches and most importantly, goals. The suggestion of the Spaniard being a ‘fraud’ bristles a little, because whilst few players have excelled in a red shirt since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, Mata is one of few who can offer a fairly solid defence of his output whilst simultaneously playing away from his favoured position. If we’re talking specific moments, then you could look at goals in tight matches against Crystal Palace two years ago and a sumptuous late free-kick against Watford last season, both of which resulted in 1-0 wins; there’s the nutmeg of Joe Hart in a 4-2 derby demolition and that incredible brace at Anfield in 2015 earning United their first win away at Liverpool in seven years; there’s also a crucial late equaliser against Palace in last May’s FA Cup final to consider, celebrated wildly by a team that had struggled to break their opponents down in what amounted to United’s biggest single game for years. In summation, Mata has delivered. Not every week, certainly, but there’s no doubt that he has provided special and particularly important moments in his time at Old Trafford, and whilst suggesting that a player “gets” the club is becoming somewhat trite, the genuine affection he reserves for United is most definitely welcome.
Whether or not you believe the reports that he was told by Mourinho that he could leave the club, there’s no denying that Mata could’ve used this summer as an opportunity to jump ship, and few would have begrudged him such a move. A lack of Champions League football, a new manager who disposed of him a few years previously and potential competition with new signings? It would’ve been easy for Mata to draw a line under his United career at May’s game at Wembley, a delightful high to sign off with and start searching for a new opportunity. But he hasn’t, not because he has lacked suitors but because he seemingly wants to stay and fight for his place. Given how the circumstances are stacked against him already, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan eventually expected to depose him in that role to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s right and with Rooney woven so distressingly into the fabric of the club’s starting XI, the odds don’t necessarily favour Mata having an effective season, and you’d still be hard-pressed to see a role for him at the club beyond this season under the Portuguese’s leadership. Still, it seems silly to write him off just yet, especially when you consider that it was a little over 18 months ago that Mata was out of Van Gaal’s side, then took his chance when Angel Di Maria was suspended and remained a constant in the Dutchman’s starting XI for the rest of his time as manager.
Despite having crossed the line from manly respect into exceptionally mushy territory during the course of this piece, it still feels like having Juan Mata at Manchester United is a privilege for more than just his capabilities on the pitch. He’s genuine, honest and more unabashedly affable than he has any right to be. His departure when it eventually comes will be strongly felt, just as much for the person he is as much as the player, which might seem like an overly emotional way of looking at the departure of a footballer. This sport by its very nature is transient, as players come and go endlessly. Then again, if you ignore football’s emotional aspects and don’t allow yourself to care about the people that help to make it special, then what’s the point of caring about it at all?