On January 26 2014 Juan Mata sat, pen in hand, hunched over a contract which confirmed his move to Manchester United, a beaming expression of happiness across his face.
To his right sat David Moyes, whose own smile was every bit as radiant as the Spaniard he had just brought from Chelsea for around £37 million. For Moyes buying Mata offered a tremendous reprieve from the criticisms being fired his way from the stands. For Mata the transfer presented him with the opportunity to right a series of perceived wrongs.
The benefits of the United move
First off there was the chance to prove Jose Mourinho wrong. The Special One had returned to his Stamford Bridge hotseat and ousted Mata without giving him a proper chance in the Chelsea side he was trying to create. For him Mata wasn’t the right type of player and, despite the fact he had won the club’s Player of the Year award twice, selling him to a bitter rival was a better option than keeping him in reserve.
Then there was the chance to kick-start something new. At the time United were toiling away to little avail, and the first doubts over their ability to qualify for the Champions League had begun to creep into the minds of the Old Trafford faithful. A fresh start, a blank canvas upon which to operate and the promise of guaranteed first-team football.
A flaw in the plan
Of course with the gift of hindsight it doesn’t take a genius to deduce that Mata’s United adventure hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. Though he’s been bright in patches the 26-year-old has yet to work the sort of magic that made him a household name at both Valencia and Chelsea, and his introduction to the squad midway through last season wasn’t enough to inspire United to claim a top four finish. It wasn’t even enough to give them a sixth placed finish.
No, United finished the season in seventh place, with Ryan Giggs in charge of the squad as David Moyes had been given his marching orders with only four fixtures remaining. What followed was the introduction of Louis van Gaal, whose arrival at United wasn’t too dissimilar to Mourinho’s aforementioned return to west London.
He came with his own ideas, his own plans and his own opinions with regards to squad selection. Woe betide anyone who tries to disagree with him.
The Van Gaal revolution
£150 million worth of expenditure later and the Dutchman has assembled an attacking line-up that only the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid can rival on a man-for-man basis. Such is the talent now at Van Gaal’s disposal that the pool of selection bodes great things for the future, unless of course your name happens to be Juan Mata.
The arrivals of Angel Di Maria, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and Radamel Falcao have given Van Gaal a selection headache few managers worldwide can boast, and it’s impossible that come United’s next home fixture against QPR, one of his ‘star’ players won't be unhappily forced to watch from the sidelines.
The general consensus is that it will be Mata who makes way, with the playmaker likely to have to surrender his position to either Di Maria, Blind or Wayne Rooney, who may drop into a deeper role to accommodate the need to have both Falcao and Robin van Persie on the pitch. Less than a year on from the nightmare Mourinho introduced at Stamford Bridge, Mata seems destined to experience deja vu.
An uncertain future for Mata
It’s not all doom and gloom though. It never really is when a player of Mata’s ability finds himself frozen out of a lineup. Serie A champions Juventus are said to be circling the situation like vultures over a fleshy carcass and they could, just as they did with Carlos Tevez in 2013, offer him a reprieve from Manchester.
The Turin outfit are all-conquering in Italy, and as they ready for the likely departure of either Paul Pogba or Arturo Vidal, they would welcome Mata with open arms. What’s more United would certainly be willing to do business if it meant they could wedge the door open concerning their chances of landing one of the Juve duo.
It’s not ideal, it’s not what Mata would have wanted and it’s far from the outcome that United fans were expecting when the first images of the 26-year-old in a Red Devils shirt started doing the rounds, but Van Gaal’s revolution doesn’t look like it’s going to wait for any man, nor carry any surplus weight.
Before too long one or two other players previously thought to be at the centre of the resurgence at the club could find themselves fretting over their futures, but for now Mata looks like he may just be the first major casualty.