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With Alexis Sánchez’s arrival, is Juan Mata now the odd man out at Manchester United?

The Spanish magician is out of contract in the summer, and maybe out of place at United.

Manchester United Training Session Photo by Matthew Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images

The signing of Arsenal forward Alexis Sánchez to Manchester United has not only breathed new life into the Red Devil’s offense, but it provides fresh roster options for manager José Mourinho as his men work to secure a top-four spot in domestic play and power through the knockout stages in the Champions League. However, the addition of United’s new number 7 potentially means another looming exit for an existing United starter. As expected, Henrikh Mkhitaryan time at Old Trafford was cut short as the Gunners acquired the Armenian midfielder in exchange for Alexis. As Mourinho seeks to develop a squad worthy enough to challenge rivals Manchester City for league champions, he’ll have to offload current players whose form is in a bit of an unpredictable state. My pick for who could be soon making their Manchester exit? Juan Mata.

For the record, it’s somewhat shocking that the Spaniard has lasted this long under Mourinho’s reign. When he left Chelsea for United in 2014, analysts attributed Mata and Mourinho’s rumored strained relationship as a primary reason. When Mourinho signed on to be United’s new manager in 2016 after Louis van Gaal’s “retirement,” many (including yours truly) assumed The Special One would sell Mata to the first interested club. On the contrary, he gave Mata a season opener start against Bournemouth, and the attacker scored United’s first domestic goal of the year.

Mata arrived at Old Trafford from Stamford Bridge in January 2014 for a club record fee of £37.1 million. Since his debut, Mata has undoubtedly recorded some lovely goals for the Red Devils (no one will ever forget this bicycle kick screamer against Liverpool in 2015). With just a few months left on his contract, if Mata exits Manchester this summer, United won’t be able to demand the same fee for which they acquired him (or any fee at all, for that matter). Mourinho has the option to extend his deal for another year, but as of late, no talks of that extension have begun. In June, Juan Mata will become a free agent.

It’s highly rumored that Mata could exit England altogether, basking in the more agreeable Spanish weather back at his former club Valencia. Los Che currently sit third in La Liga standings, six points behind runners up Atletico Madrid and two points in front of reigning champions Real Madrid. A return to Valencia could certainly boast their future Champions League pursuits, should the results stay the same and they secure a top four spot.

With Martial playing exceptionally well on the left and Jesse Lingard closing in on being United’s permanent no. 10 for the time being, it’s expected that Alexis will assume the attacking position on the right, a post all too familiar to Mata. Mata has recorded 15 of 16 Premier League starts in that role, and has inherently made it his own. United’s offensive options significantly improved with the signing of Sánchez, and unfortunately Mata does not posses Sanchez’s speed to be as efficient on the right. In recent matches especially, Mata has a tendency to weaken the pace of play, passing behind to defenders when a better option would be to create a goal-scoring opportunity by crossing to Lukaku for instance. Even though United edged out a 1-0 win against Burnley earlier this month, Mata’s form was sorely exposed, and the impending transfer of the Chilean superstar was greeted with relief by supporters who could have done without the Spaniard’s lackadaisical play.

Lest we only discuss Mata’s faults, it’s vital to also analyze his advantages that could see him remain on Mourinho’s roster. When Mata is in form, he is unstoppable. His creativity in finding an open man in tight spaces is often unparalleled, and this stunner against Leicester City during the festive fixtures has earned him on the shortlist to take many of United’s free kick shots. What he lacks in speed, he certainly makes up for in competitiveness. His commitment to playing at his best is obvious every time he steps onto the pitch, and that has rightfully solidified his reputation as a Manchester United fan favorite.

As a one-off option to give Alexis Sánchez break, it could be beneficial for United to keep Mata around. His form has been a bit of a roller coaster in recent weeks, and while that’s expected from time to time, dormant contract negotiations furthermore add insult to injury. Juan Mata’s future at United could ultimately be decided with how United finish in domestic play and Champions League pursuits. With ongoing conversation of Dybala, Bale and other European superstars possibly calling Old Trafford home this summer, Juan Mata’s time at Manchester United could end not because of his lack of dedication to this club, but his manager’s desire to add more hardware.