Comparing Juan Mata's performances at Chelsea and Manchester United
While the signing of Juan Mata in January did not pave over the cracks that were showing at Manchester United, the arrival of the Spaniard certainly excited fans. His acquisition for a club record £37.1m was not, however, able to save David Moyes from the sack and Mata’s perceived drop in form after a bright start in Manchester saw him criticised.
Mata has, though, impressed in his short spell with United. A player of his stature was always going to do so at Old Trafford, having displayed his Premier League pedigree during his time with Chelsea. Despite being out of favour under José Mourinho, Blues fans were predictably upset at the departure of their two-time player of the year.
In more recent times, some felt Ryan Giggs was warranted in dropping Mata from the starting XI in two of the last four games of the season, but the Spain international has proven his worth at United. Only Wayne Rooney (7.61) and Patrice Evra (7.3) earned a higher WhoScored rating than Mata (7.28) of all United players with at least 5 appearances this term, highlighting his impact since arriving in January.
This is a stark contrast to his rating at Chelsea this season (6.87) with Mourinho using him sparingly in the league. Giving Mata more playing time has benefitted United, the Spaniard scoring significantly more goals (6) and registering more assists (4) than he did for Chelsea (0 goals, 2 assists) in the Premier League this term. Furthermore, no United player won more man of the match awards than Mata (2) between his debut - the 2-0 home win against Cardiff - and the end of the season. Mata is recognised as one of the best attacking midfielders in the game, so his improved goal and assist tallies for United are little shock.
However, his poor return in the first half of the season could have been a result of Chelsea’s stronger attacking options compared to United’s. The Blues can call on the likes of Eden Hazard, Willian and Oscar, to name three, to provide a goalscoring threat from midfield, an undeniably higher standard when compared to Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Nani. This meant Mata felt the need to take more responsibility in attack, with his new teammates failing to up their game sufficiently.
Moreover, Mourinho is renowned as one of the best managers in football and his fine attention to detail meant a set approach, which involved working the ball into the box, was in place and the personnel available to him saw this pay off. However, United struggled to break down teams that defended staunchly and under Moyes, the team lacked any real gameplan, meaning Mata is likely to have fired away more pot shots than well-worked efforts in the second half of the season. This saw him average more than double the number of shots per game with United (1.9) than Chelsea (0.8).
Though Mourinho deployed him in the attacking trio behind the frontman in his favoured 4-2-3-1 when needed, the Portuguese also demands his more attack-minded players to track back to help defend and press opponents in possession. WhoScored.com writer Jonathan Wilson asked whether Juan Mata is a Mourinho player back in January and the general consensus was that he did not fit the mould.
Mata’s only statistically calculated WhoScored weakness is ‘defensive contribution’, while the midfielder has developed strengths of ‘key passes’, ‘through balls’ and ‘long shots’. The latter three, amongst others, renders the diminutive creator the perfect player to operate in a free role in the final third rather than waste energy winning the ball back.
Even though Mourinho did not rate the defensive side of his game, Mata is capable of doing the dirty work. His tackles per match this season (1.1) isn’t necessarily a poor return for a player in his position and he has proven he can perform these duties when asked to do so.
Only Santi Cazorla (31) and Luis Suárez (29) won possession in the attacking third more times than Mata (24) in the Premier League last season. While he operates better without these restraints, the proof is there that Mata is able to assist defensively when required.
Nevertheless, criticism aimed in the direction of Mata is unwarranted. Uncertainty off the pitch would have hindered his initial impact, but he has still performed admirably since his move to United. With a manager of Louis van Gaal’s ilk at the helm, the Dutchman expected to be named permanent boos soon, fans have every right to be confident that Mata will pay back some of the hefty fee paid for him once the season kicks off again in August.