After a year that sparked questions over whether the game had rendered him obsolete, the Spaniard has fought back to prove there is still a place for
As he runs out onto the Stamford Bridge pitch on Saturday, Juan Mata may just glance over at the Chelsea substitutes’ bench and breathe a sigh of relief.
When Samuel Eto’o put Manchester United to the sword in west London 14 months ago, Mata was in no mood to appreciate one of the best seats in the house. He watched impassively, with a growing awareness that he had already made his last appearance under Jose Mourinho.
A week later he was a United player. An embattled David Moyes heralded the arrival of “one of the finest playmakers in the game today”, while Chelsea could point to a princely £37.1 million fee for a man regarded surplus to requirements after two exceptional seasons in blue.
Yet in the short term none of the involved parties benefited greatly from the headline deal of January 2014. Mata’s departure at least covered the cost of signing Nemanja Matic and Mohamed Salah, but Chelsea’s Premier League title challenge collapsed due to the absent combination of midfield creativity and goal threat against defensive opponents. Mata had offered both until Mourinho’s arrival.
United saw their new marquee signing as a market statement rather than a key cog in a coherent wider plan. Despite his open admiration for Mata’s quality, Moyes had no idea how to incorporate the Spaniard’s unique skill set into his dysfunctional attacking unit and his underwhelming impact at Old Trafford spared Mourinho much of the criticism for a deal that significantly weakened his own attacking options.
It also bolstered the narrative that the Portuguese had helped create around Mata: that he was a luxury, a defensive liability who lacked the physical capability, the desire or both to fulfil his tactical duties at both ends of the pitch.
Perhaps Mourinho shared his concerns with close friend and former mentor Louis van Gaal, because Mata has had to prove himself all over again since the Dutchman’s arrival at Old Trafford.
But, recent weeks have demonstrated that there is still a place for exceptional playmaking talent. Van Gaal’s United have finally developed a post-Sir Alex Ferguson identity and Mata has emerged as a key figure – surprisingly from the right wing, the position in which Mourinho often deployed him to highlight his flaws.
Antonio Valencia’s powerful surges from right-back create chances for Mata to drift inside, where his passing combinations with the improving Ander Herrera and Wayne Rooney have enabled United to reach a new level of attacking purpose and imagination.
“Juan Mata is always one of my better players,” Van Gaal, now a believer, told reporters after the Spaniard’s match-winning display against Liverpool at Anfield. “We have to play like a team and you have to play in positions so you look like a team. Now he is playing as a fast right-winger and the combination with him and Herrera gives him more opportunities. I was looking for balance and now I have found a position for him.”
Critical goals against Liverpool and Manchester City have endeared Mata to the United fans while reinforcing one of his best qualities: big-game impact. In 29 matches against the Premier League’s current top five and Tottenham since his arrival in England four years ago, the Spaniard boasts 12 goals and eight assists.
His key defensive numbers stand up to scrutiny too. Mata has made only five fewer tackles (24) than Willian (29) – the man who replaced him in the Chelsea starting XI – in three fewer Premier League matches this season, while pulling off more interceptions (18) than both the former Shakhtar Donetsk winger (9) and Oscar (14). At the other end he has scored as many goals from open play (8) as the two Brazilians combined.
None of this, of course, will make Mourinho regret his decision. Chelsea sit top of the Premier League, on the brink of a first title since 2010, having solved last season’s two main problems by signing Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa – even if the fading of both has forced Eden Hazard to once again carry the team since the turn of the year.
Mata, in turn, is too nice to admit he returns on Saturday with a point to prove. “Going back to Stamford Bridge for the first time will bring me plenty of good memories,” he insisted earlier this week.
But when the first ball is kicked, he will surely hope to remind Chelsea just what a weapon they handed over to the team now emerging as their biggest rivals.