A player once contributed to 54 goals in 64 games, won a Europa League and made the PFA team of the year. That same player was 25 years of age, yet to touch his prime. The player in question was Juan Mata. “Why did he not hit such lofty heights again?” Is the likely question, the answer, he signed for Manchester United in the following season.
United have been many things and have been labelled as a lot more post-Ferguson. But one of the most pertinent descriptions of this nine-year transition period is that “Old Trafford has been a graveyard for talented footballers”. Many a career have felt Death’s touch after penning a deal at United, some have failed to return, others have revived their fortunes on pastures new. Some, however, stick around for eight years as their legacy in the game dwindles.Embed from Getty Images
When United signed Mata it was a massive coup. Despite being out of favour at Chelsea, he was still a huge fan favourite at Stamford Bridge. Had it not been for Jose Mourinho and their political relationship, the Spaniard would have likely stayed to write himself into folklore in west London. But when David Moyes came calling with the chance to sign for United, Mata got on the next helicopter and flew to Carrington.
One can only guess what was promised as the two discussed, United’s plans in January 2014 but being played out of position for almost a decade cannot have been on the agenda.
Mata was one of the silkiest and one of the most talented players United have had at their disposal in recent years. A touch to the envy of the gods, mixed with a personality that will light up the darkest of rooms – During his time in Manchester, we have seen glimpses of that.Embed from Getty Images
United’s no.8 has chipped in with some vital goals including the equaliser in the 2016 FA Cup final that United went on to win. Victories at Anfield are a rarity nowadays, but Mata starred in one of the most recent, scoring a brace that saw a great scissors goal and birthed the iconically dubbed “Juanfield”.
His latest “productive” season came in 2016/17 where he scored 10 and set up six as United picked up Mourinho’s famed treble of the Community Shield, League Cup and Europa League. In that season, a Marcus Rashford cut back to a drifting in Mata to slot away was a familiar pattern of play. However much that worked, he was still played out on the right.Embed from Getty Images
During his time at Chelsea, which will probably remain the highlights of his career on the pitch, he was the quintessential number 10. For Spain, despite picking up a Euros and World Cup medal, he was a bit-part player. When he did play there he was pushed to wing areas. However, when you’re competing with some of the best midfielders to grace the game from 2009-to 2014 it’s understandable. United haven’t had the luxury of the best-balanced midfield in the world. And when the club has really struggled for creativity at times, it’s a shame his footballing brain hasn’t been picked at times of need.
Mata’s United career will ultimately be seen as a touch disappointing. However, not unlike others in the current squad or from previous teams the blame doesn’t solely lie with the player.
Perhaps Mata wasn’t the player United needed, perhaps United could have done with someone more dynamic or perhaps United could have built a team around him. The hypotheticals are endless, but one thing is for sure, the recruitment team cannot let history repeat itself.