They say a rising tide raises all boats. For Manchester United this season, that rising tide has been Juan Mata. The Spaniard, now in his sixth season at Old Trafford has outlasted three managers, including the one who sold him to United and the one who signed him from Chelsea.
Juan Mata has never fully nailed down a starting berth at Old Trafford since his arrival but against Huddersfield on Boxing Day, he again demonstrated why he is so highly rated by Manchester United fans.
To the cynical observer, Mata was the classic panic buy in the dying days of the David Moyes regime. Arriving via helicopter towards the end of the former Everton man’s tenure, it was hoped that Mata could solve the problems of the Scot’s already ailing team. It was not to be, but Mata was to be the first of a series of signings that would form the bedrock of the post-Ferguson team.
It is perhaps symptomatic of the post-Ferguson era that a player who would form its bedrock has equally never really nailed down a starting role in the lineup.
While he has never been the first name in the lineup, Juan Mata has been the epitome of a big game player. He has scored repeatedly against Liverpool and Manchester City while at United and his double against Liverpool in March 2015 was perhaps not only the highlight of the Louis Van Gaal reign but the entire post Ferguson era. It is arguable that a Manchester United team has not performed as cogently since Ferguson departed as on that fine Merseyside day and Juan Mata was central to the victory.
Michael Cox has argued that certain types of players can be era defining. The success of Eric Cantona — the charismatic, mercurial Frenchman — led to the scouting and subsequent arrival of Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola in the Premier League. Claude Makelele led to a role being created in his name with many less successful tribute acts in the vein of Anderson and Jon Obi Mikel.
Juan Mata was of a type of player, similar to David Silva and Philippe Coutinho, who arrived in the Premier League at the start of this decade. They were seen as clever midfield players who could link the attack; players capable of both creating and scoring goals.
The main criticism of Mata would be that he lacks the pace of those other players, though he must rue that it was José Mourinho who arrived at Old Trafford rather than Pep Guardiola, the man at the opposite side of Manchester who infused life into the latter day career of David Silva.
It might seem like a trivial matter in modern day football, but the respect with which Juan Mata has treated Manchester United and its fans since his arrival cannot be disregarded. Mata has been the ultimate professional and made Manchester his undoubted home. It has been a refreshing sight to see Manchester United players such as Mata and his fellow Spaniards so proud to represent the club, especially in an era when many of his team mates choose professional ambivalence towards club and cultural allegiance, in an effort so as not to diminish their hand in future contract negotiations.
Under Mourinho, the man who sold Juan Mata as manager of Chelsea, the Spaniard has again demonstrated incredible character; making himself an ever important and relevant part of the Mourinho reign. It is telling that Mata played a central part in both Van Gaal’s and Mourinho’s greatest individual triumphs as Manchester United manager, with not only his double at Anfield in 2015 but also spearheading United’s comeback away to Juventus in November 2018.
Mata had also spearheaded United’s comeback at home to Newcastle less than a month earlier, galvanising his reputation as a clutch player; that player a manager can really rely on when the chips are down. The same was true against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in late October as Mata was the chief creator of Anthony Martial’s second goal.
It wasn’t the same type of situation on Boxing Day, but Juan Mata, now playing under his fourth Manchester United manager, put in an assured and confident performance. It was one which really epitomised the notion of a rising tide raising all boats; Mata made that performance tick with his movement and passing and the faster, more nimble players worked around him.
There is an expectancy with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer now that he must endeavour to cultivate the abilities and egos of Paul Pogba and Alexis Sánchez to properly see the best out of this Manchester United team. That is undoubtedly true, but there is a real argument for Juan Mata’s celebration as an unsung hero of that team.
The Spaniard has proved his game winning pedigree at Old Trafford and finding a home for him in the lineup in 2019 is a must for the Norwegian manager.