In 2013, alongside Fernando Torres, Juan Mata become the first player to hold the Europa League, Champions League, World Cup and European Championship simultaneously, and was widely considered to be among the best players in the Premier League. Now, at the age of 27, he shouldn’t be stuck out on the wing at Manchester United.
During his first two seasons at Chelsea, Mata excelled in the role behind the striker. At times, the tactics deployed by Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez were simply give the ball to Mata in good positions and let the Spaniard work his magic.
In those first two seasons at Stamford Bridge, Mata provided 26 assists for his team mates. Over the same period of time, only David Silva managed as many. For a team who, over those seasons played without a prolific striker, this is a very impressive record.
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During the same spell, the midfielder was a serial trophy winner. He played a key role in both Chelsea’s historic Champions League and FA Cup triumphs in his first season in England, and his side’s Europa League win a year later.
However once Jose Mourinho returned to Stamford Bridge, Mata never really stood a chance. The Special One never warmed to the Spaniard and his style of play. His lack of pace and limited tracking back never fitted into the Portuguese manager’s philosophy, despite his obvious talent on the ball.
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The inevitable transfer took place in January 2014, when Manchester United spent £37.1 million to bring Mata to Old Trafford, only David Moyes’ second incoming at the club. His impact at the club was immediate, as he provided four assists and scored six goals in the second half of the season.
Mata was much less in favour with Louis van Gaal when he became the Red Devils’ manager. If he started, he was shunted out to the wing with the Dutchman favouring Wayne Rooney in behind either Robin van Persie or Radamel Falcao upfront. This has very much continued this season.
At 27, Mata should be reaching the peak of his powers, so needs to be playing consistent football at the highest level so to make the most of it. He plays his best football in the centre behind the striker, in a fast-flowing style of football. He won’t get this at Manchester United.
Van Gaal’s Manchester United teams have lacked any real tempo, and he doesn’t seem to trust Mata playing behind the striker. It would be the worst case scenario for him if Jose Mourinho came to Old Trafford. From the pair’s six months together at Chelsea, we can see that this will not work.
If he wants to be playing his best football and make a return to the Spain squad, he needs to leave Manchester United. There are plenty of top teams across Europe that would welcome a player of Mata’s quality on the ball, whether it be across Europe or still in England.
There can be no ruling out a return to Chelsea. However, a move to Spain is more likely, where Mata first learnt his trade. Whatever happens, he would be better off away from Manchester United.