Two years ago it was unthinkable that Juan Mata would be playing his football anywhere other than Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea’s £23.5 million signing quickly became a fan favourite after two impressive campaigns, both of which saw him named the clubs Player of the Year. In the first of his two full campaigns with The Blues he managed six goals and 13 assists and was a key player as Chelsea lifted the Champions League.
He followed that up with another excellent season which saw him record 12 goals and 12 assists, enough for him to be nominated for the PFA Players’ Player of the Year Award. The little Spaniard had firmly established himself as one of Chelsea’s most influential players, but that was about to change.
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Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge was the beginning of the end for Mata at Chelsea. The clubs two time Player of the Year suddenly found himself out of the team. Mata found his first team opportunities limited as Brazilian Oscar was often preferred by Mourinho.
His refusal to adapt and track back was apparently the reason why the Spanish international spent the majority of the first half of the 2013/14 season on the substitutes bench.
The midfielder simply didn’t fit the system that Mourinho was trying to implement at the club. When he reacted angrily to being substituted against Southampton, the writing was on the wall.
Yet few could have predicted that Mourinho would sell such a talented player to a direct rival in the form of Manchester United. However The Red Devils needed a major transfer coup, after a disastrous summer, and they’d found their man.
A NEW CHALLENGE
Manchester United smashed their transfer record when they paid Chelsea a whopping £37.1 million for Mata. Unfortunately for David Moyes the new arrival could do little to save the clubs ill-fated season. Although he struck six times in the second half of the season, his performances were nowhere near the level that he’d produced in his first two years at Chelsea. Indeed he didn't justify his large price tag in his first five months with United.
Mata’s struggle to hit top form was in part due to being fielded out of position. In March 2014 Manchester City’s David Silva commented that United were “wasting” Mata. City’s midfield magician made a valid point, United had paid mega-bucks for Mata but had been reluctant to play him in his favoured number ten role.
It was one of far too many talking points in a diabolical campaign for United that saw them finish in an unthinkable seventh place. The man who signed Mata was given his marching orders in April 2014. No sooner had Moyes taken charge than his reign was over. Thankfully incoming manager Louis van Gaal had the answer to United’s problems, including the Mata conundrum. Or did he?
With Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal taking over at United there was a real sense of optimism ahead of the 2014/15 season. It was widely assumed that the Dutchman was the man to finally get the best out of the clubs array of talent. Yet, it was still far from a comfortable season for the club.
Mata began his first full season at United by scoring in the second game of the Premier League season. However, it wasn't until the latter stages of the season that he really came to the fore. He scored two against bitter rivals Liverpool before netting in the Manchester Derby. Mata was praised by many for his performances in the run-in, though the reality was that his excellent end of season form covered up the underlining issue.
The midfielder was still not being utilised correctly by United. He did well in the 2014/15 campaign considering he was regularly shunted out onto the right flank, a total of nine goals and four assists was respectable. Manchester United paid nearly £40 million for the player though and by the standards he set at Chelsea it still wasn't good enough.
He managed a mere four assists last season, highlighting that he was unable to influence matches as much as he can do due to being played on the wing. Mata’s and the team's excellent form towards the end of the season was enough to silence the critics for a short while.
It has not taken long for those critics to return, and with good reason. It’s been a underwhelming start to the new season for United who've managed just two goals from their opening three games, one of which was an own goal by Kyle Walker.
Juan Mata finds himself in an all too familiar situation. Nearly two years into his United career, the situation must be beginning to frustrate the Spaniard and has certainly not gone unnoticed by United fans. It’s been suggested that Mata has a ‘free’ role on the right flank, but the reality is he is once again being forced to play in an unnatural position.
So far this season van Gaal has tried both Memphis Depay and Adnan Januzaj in the number ten position, both of which are wingers. Meanwhile United’s best out and out attacking midfielder is being deployed out wide for the second season in a row.
He’s another who is suffering as a result of this so called “philosophy”. Needless experimentation with player positioning has become the norm with United’s Dutch manager. Millions have been spent but the system remains confused and disorganised. Why players cannot simply be fielded in their natural position is simply mind boggling.
Mata does not have the pace, strength or discipline to play as a winger. Just watch him on any given match day, he cannot influence a game considerably out wide, thus he drifts inside creating space for the opposition down the wing. It would be easy to point the finger at Mata for this, but in truth he is only doing what is natural for him. In addition he looks far more dangerous when he does drift into the middle because let’s face it, he’s never going to be bursting past players.
United made a sizeable investment in Juan Mata but he is being wasted by van Gaal. Yes, he may have notched nine goals and four assists last season but this is a player who was comfortably hitting double figures for both in his Chelsea days. A quick glance at the statistics will show you that the shift out wide has had a negative effect.
The whole situation really does make you scratch your head. Two United managers have been reluctant to play one of the best number tens in the country, in the number ten position. The more eye brow raising team selections you see, the more you start to think it’s arrogance, an experiment so that when it finally pays off van Gaal can say “I told you so”.
The United manager can talk all he likes about “philosophy” but wasting one of the clubs best talents is unforgiveable. The frustrating thing is that Mata is not in fact performing badly, it’s that they could get so much more out of him. Play him as a number ten, or don’t play him at all.
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