Juan Mata is an incredible life-giving genius who writes whimsical blogs and scores winning goals against Liverpool. That much is not in dispute amongst reasonable people, and it should be enough to have you suspended from your place of work or favourite drinking hole* should you contest otherwise. However, it seems that because of his lovely points, and they are bloody lovely, the past year and a bit of disappointment is on the verge of being whitewashed. If Manchester United want to improve next year, then his recent improvement should not necessarily convince Louis van Gaal to keep him around for the future.
* Not a mouth
There are plenty of mitigating factors for his slow progress at Old Trafford. When he was bought in January 2014 the reasoning didn't extend further than Ed Woodward thinking, "Wow! Juan Mata! He's famous for being good!" And in many ways, that's a reasonable way to approach some signings. Mata was undeniably an excellent player with a history of success at Chelsea, had adjusted to the Premier League better than most other players, and he was available for an affordable price. £37 million is expensive, yes, but it remains affordable for United as the Glazers have started to realise they will now only have humans as managers, rather than a genius.
Which then left David Moyes to accommodate him. Moyes demonstrated his abilities at Everton and he continues to demonstrate them at Real Sociedad. At United, he demonstrated his weaknesses, by being naive, occasionally craven and unable to gain the trust of his very best senior players. Mata, arriving late into the season when the crisis was about to begin, was not reported to hold Moyes in contempt, but it became apparent that Moyes had no idea what to do with him. Similarly, he had little idea what to do with the rest of the squad there, and so Mata gets a pass for his only occasionally impressive games in 2013/14.
There were rumours in 2014 that none of the Class of 92 were especially impressed, with each of them bar David Beckham either discussing his weaknesses in public, or being the subject of whispers that suggested they were not entirely convinced by his presence. Phil Neville was not one of them, because he is not part of the Class of 92.
And they were right not to be convinced. Having spent years in England, he was still physically unimposing. Compare the transformation in Mesut Özil from Germany to Spain, and then to England. For all his faults — and for all the sudden puff pieces now that he's finally hit a run of form — Özil did at least recognise an obvious weakness and work on it. Mata has not done so, at least not effectively, and can still be barged off the ball by a particularly strong gust of wind. Or Joe Allen. Even David Beckham was capable of handling himself. His replacement, Cristiano Ronaldo, understood that strength and pace was essential to becoming the best in the world, and trained accordingly. Mata has not, and at 26 time is running out to prepare for his peak years. Another, more chilling reason to worry about his potential — Rafa Benítez absolutely loves him.
Just as he cannot physically impose himself on games, only rarely has he done it psychologically for United. Last year, he was instrumental to a good but fruitless opening five minutes against Spurs, and then against Newcastle he was at the heart of pulling apart an admittedly terrible side. But United played other obviously terrible sides, and when he was there he was not especially effective. Mata's weakness is matched by many in the side under Van Gaal.
Ángel Di María looked like a world beater at Real Madrid. Radamel Falcao was once the world's best striker. Michael Carrick was a key part of United's resurgence after the Djemba-Djemba years. Luke Shaw was one of the most attacking and threatening left-backs in the Premier League at Southampton. Adnan Januzaj flickered, but with what luminescence! Wayne Rooney was a footballing savant. Robin van Persie was the closest to Ruud van Nistelrooy the side had had since, well, Ruud van Nistelrooy. And yet under Van Gaal they all played like guff for 35 games.
The best players overcome their side's weaknesses or when they are themselves playing like pish. United's best can't, or don't. Only now has Mata started to impress when the rest of the side has got it together, a possible mixture of luck, practice and tactics have allowed this to happen. Do not be fooled by Mata's reinvigoration for two 45 minute first halves. Mata, and United, could all quite quickly return to incompetence. He's a lovely man, and he writes blogs on the internet, but as this site can attest, that doesn't mean you actually deserve to be constantly rewarded or indulged.