He’s Juan of United’s best, but it Matas little in José’s grand plan
Juan Mata’s recent years in the Premier League have been an enigma. While successful, the Spaniard has often appeared to be a square peg in a round hole. Somehow, and with great credit, the Spaniard has made his time at Manchester United work. The player’s style is unrecognisable from his time at Chelsea and Valencia, with his defensive workrate significantly improved, making Mata both more useful, and more modern.
For United he is a player with the happy knack of scoring important goals. Last Wednesday at Crystal Palace Mata offered another example, despite the Spaniard’s strike being incorrectly ruled out for offside. Mata was quiet at Selhurst Park, rarely impacting the game from the right, before popping up to strike what would have been a vital goal.
Mata has always been the type of playmaker to make the crucial difference in a big game; always capable of creating something special when in need. The player has five goals and two assists in 20 appearances this season, although not once has he completed the full 90 minutes.
When it comes to data, Mata ranks seventh in WhoScored’s rating system, for what its worth, trailing only Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Mata and Paul Pogba are tied for second in United’s goalscoring charts this season with five goals each behind the Swede.
"Mata is an enigma. He has is often a square peg in a round hole, yet somehow has made his time at United work. He’ll always score crucial goals and make plenty of assists, but for now he is no longer one of the first names on the team sheet."
Yet, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s emergence as a brilliant and potentially talismanic playmaker, has created an interesting dilemma when it comes to José Mourinho’s squad selection.
In recent weeks, Mourinho’s preference has been to select Pogba alongside the ever-improving Ander Herrera and veteran Michael Carrick in central midfield, leaving just two players in support of Ibrahimovic in the forward line. And, crucially, no real playmaker.
Before suffering a recent injury, Mkhitaryan progressed from outcast to one of the first names on the team sheet, with a series of superb displays. The Armenian has found a good balance with Ibrahimovic, a striker who always knows where and when to be, while Mkhitaryan also benefits from the sharp passing of Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick. The former Borussia Dortmund player also appears to be a good fit with Pogba, with neither getting into the other’s ‘zone’.
Mkhitaryan’s style benefits from a runner on the other side of the pitch, leaving Mata a less than ideal foil. Despite slow starts this season Antony Martial and Marcus Rashford provide that drive and pace where Mata cannot, while Jesse Lingard offers a superb work ethic and, if Saturday’s assist for Ibrahimovic is anything to go by, no little quality.
Then, of course, comes Wayne Rooney who started both of United’s recent games against Palace and West Bromwich Albion from a wide area. The Englishman will, presumably, always be near Mourinho’s team selection while he remains at the club.
It leaves Mata in trouble, despite being one of United’s best players this season. The obvious conclusion is that Mourinho may have decided that Mata is no longer a tactical fit, despite all the player brings to United. And there is no doubt that he remains one of the club’s best.
Indeed, if Mourinho persists in deploying a 4-3-3 system, a likely choice considering United’s recent upturn in form, then Mata may find himself the odd man out – a 12th man too good to let go, but not the right fit for the system at hand.
Mata fits far more easily into Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 setup, when another attacking spot becomes available, enabling the Spaniard and Mkhitaryan to smoothly transition between the wide right attacking role and one at number 10, creating a fluid and dynamic front line. Yet, this is a system that does not allow the club’s best player to thrive – and there’s no question that Paul Pogba’s finest games for United have come in the revised formation.
It may mean that Mata is relegated to the role of ‘home team player’, appearing in games when United is the dominant force and Pogba can slide into the team next to Herrera or Carrick in a midfield two. The logic remains that Mourinho’s favoured 4-2-3-1 system, the one he has used for the majority of his managerial career, will make way for the formation that is getting the best of the current United squad.
Mata will retain value during times of rotation or while Mkhitaryan is out injured, as the Armenian is now. But there will also be occasions when Mata is forced to watch the game and not play it. The Spaniard’s streak of not finishing 90 minutes looks to continue for some time yet.
Not that Mata is heading towards the exit. Mourinho values his number eight and has gone on the record to state that the player will not be leaving the club, and that Mata has impressed with his personal transformation.
Mata will always score crucial goals and make plenty of assists, but for now the player is no longer one of the first names on the team sheet. And that’s ok, because he’s still very important to the club.