It’s amazing what a difference a few years can make in the life of a professional football player. You only have to look at the transformation of Juan Mata at Manchester United for reference.
Once bitten twice shy
Mata was sold to United from Chelsea by Jose Mourinho in 2014, after the Portuguese deemed the Spaniard to be a misfit in his system at Chelsea. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that many were expecting Mata to face a similar fate when Mourinho took charge of United at the beginning of the ongoing campaign.
Moreover, these beliefs were reinforced when Mourinho substituted Mata just 27 minutes after coming on, during United’s Community Shield encounter against Leicester City earlier this season. This is perhaps also what led Mata’s family to fear that he would once again be sold by the Portuguese.
However, Mata’s performances from then on have definitely calmed the fears of his possible departure, not only for his family but also for his fans. In fact, it is ironic and even intriguing, how Mata has gone from being the ‘Unwanted One’ to being the ‘Chosen Juan’, under Mourinho.
Mata’s resurgence can be best understood from two perspectives – his own and Mourinho’s.
One man’s loss is another man’s gain
It goes without saying that Mata is currently benefitting from his previous experience of playing under Mourinho. However, the Spaniard is also being hugely aided by Wayne Rooney’s fall from grace and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s injuries, as well as his struggle to get used to the pace and physicality of the Premier League.
Rooney’s decline and Mkhitaryan’s injury have resulted in Mata playing far more often for Mourinho at United, than he did at Chelsea. Mata has featured in nine of United’s 11 Premier League games so far this season, and more importantly has started in seven of those nine appearances.
Moreover, an ageing Rooney and a less than fit Mkhitaryan have left Mata as the only genuine ‘No. 10’ at Mourinho’s disposal; and the 28-year-old has left no stone unturned to make that position his own. None more so than when Mata and United turned in by far their best performance of the season so far, by blowing away defending champions Leicester City 4-1 at Old Trafford in September.
Further, though the former Chelsea man has not scored in the Premier League since that fixture, he has easily been United’s best outfield player this season. Not surprisingly, he once again came to his side’s rescue to ensure a face-saving win over Manchester City in the EFL Cup last month.
Mata’s contributions have been so pivotal to United so far that he has often been the lone silver lining in an occasionally turbulent cloud for Mourinho and United this season. In a way, he has only been serving his Portuguese coach constant reminders of his quality.
Killing two birds with one stone
As far as Mourinho is concerned, Mata’s good run of form can solve more problems than one; in particular, the Paul Pogba puzzle. Though the former Inter coach managed to lure Pogba back to Old Trafford on a world record transfer fee, there has been constant scrutiny over the Frenchman’s best position in Mourinho’s line-up.
Mourinho started out by deploying Pogba in an advanced position, but that didn’t work out for the 23-year-old, as he struggled to impact games the way he truly can. Furthermore, given how naturally suited Mata is to the attacking midfield role, it would be ill-advised to play the ex-Juventus star in that position in the first place.
In the game against Swansea City before the international break, however, Mourinho chose to deploy Pogba in a deeper role, which also meant that Mata started in the attacking midfield position. And in a way, this variation made all the difference.
Starting from a slightly deeper position in midfield, alongside Michael Carrick, and venturing into the opposition half, saw Pogba pose a potent threat like never before. More importantly, he also managed to find the net with a stunning strike that should have made up Mourinho’s mind regarding his best position.
If United are to climb their way back to where they should be, it’s absolutely vital for Mourinho to get his game changers like Mata and Pogba playing to their strength. And the self-proclaimed Special One may have just stumbled upon his best formation during United’s last Premier League encounter. Now, all that’s left to be done is for Mata, Pogba and their teammates to get some consistency in their performances.
Juan Mata has done phenomenally well to become a vital cog in Jose’s Manchester United wheel, and now the onus is on the manager to repay his performances and build his team around the Spaniard.
(Video courtesy: Kaiizo YouTube channel)
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