In the 57th minute of Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Swansea City on Saturday, something wonderful almost happened.
Paul Pogba clipped a delicious pass over the visiting defence, landing it on the left foot of Juan Mata who had stolen in unmarked. Standing free, around seven yards from goal at slight angle, Mata waited for the ball to drop low enough so he could strike it comfortably first time.
Everyone expected the net to ripple, but instead the ball was sent spinning high over the crossbar and into the Stretford End. Mata flashed his half-apologetic cheeky grin and raised that loveable eyebrow in his “did you see that lovely thing I nearly did” look that he has long perfected.
Hearts melted. Didn’t you just want to ruffle his hair? The little scamp. Unlucky. Almost Juan…..almost.
It was the sort of chance that a polished technician of Mata’s ilk is supposed to bury. Though it’s the sort of chance he rarely does. The Andalusian artiste has now scored just two goals in total in his last twenty seven appearances in United red.
It’s important not to brush past that figure too quickly. Two goals in twenty seven appearances - both of which were scored in the same game during United’s 2-2 draw with Leicester at the King Power Stadium in late December. He hasn’t found the net in seventeen matches since. It’s an appalling return for any attacking player.
In total, Mata has scored three Premier League goals this season, playing regularly for the fourth highest scoring team in the division.
Of course, it’s only fair to point out that Mata should be classed as more of a creator than a finisher. His devotees, of which there are many, would list weight of pass, imagination and vision among Mata’s gifts and to his credit, United’s number eight has four Premier League assists this season.
Incidentally, that’s the same number of assists as Spurs’ right back Kieran Trippier and Arsenal left back Selad Kolasinac. Probably best not to mention Tottenham left back Ben Davies though, who has five.
As always, statistics are just surface scratchers and it’s much harder to quantify Mata’s ability to knit play together in United’s build up. Though, it does feel as though his impact in that area is often overstated by his enthusiastic fringe following who are often all too quick to transform a good touch or two into a good performance.
Or maybe I’m just not smart enough to appreciate what Mata does? In the same way I wasn’t clever enough to appreciate the genius of Dimitar Berbatov. It’s probably the pass I’m NOT seeing that I have to look out for. The exploitation of the half space and the things he doesn’t do that makes everything else that actually happens happen.
Maybe his lack of end product and atrocious delivery from corners rank equally in their unimportance? Perhaps, I should learn to marvel at that sweeping pass he plays out to the left back five times a game and the little scurried, purposeful space searching run he makes immediately after?
I’ll try that.
In many ways, the second half miss was Juan Mata’s Manchester United career in nutshell – a snapshot summation of a player who has never hit the heights we all expected him to.
Looking back, Mata’s arrival as United’s record signing in January 2014 could be described as David Moyes’ last throw of the dice. The final swinging haymaker of a semi lucid boxer who’s moments from kissing the canvas.
Mata wasn’t the archetypal United player to begin with. He had none of the explosiveness you would generally associate with Man Utd attackers, though there was still every reason to be excited about signing the two time Chelsea Player of the Year. However, as it transpired, United fans have never seen that Mata.
If you want to refresh your memory, take a look at Mata’s highlight reel from his two full seasons at Stamford Bridge – it’s like watching a different player.
It’s ironic that current United manager José Mourinho couldn’t wait to get Mata out the door at Chelsea. Mourinho was a few months away from building his second title winning team at Stamford Bridge and he felt so completely underwhelmed and unthreatened by Mata, he was happy to rubber stamp his transfer to a rival.
That probably should have set alarm bells ringing, but desperate times and all that. Signing Mata was a chance to inject some positivity into a club on its knees and when that helicopter landed, we were all giddy.
Mata’s impact wasn’t instant, which is understandable after he was thrown into a team that had already downed tools, though when Moyes was eventually sacked later that season, caretaker boss Ryan Giggs dropped Mata for his first game in charge against Hull City.
That might have seemed insignificant at the time, but in hindsight a United traditionalist opting to leave a record singing out in favour more dynamism and a return to the club’s established attacking values was quite a statement.
It was the first inkling that Juan Mata didn’t really fit, that he and United would always be at odds with each other’s style. And really, today Mata remains a square peg with a cheeky grin in a round hole at Old Trafford.
He’s a player successive managers have been largely unsure what to do with. There have been outstanding moments; his spectacular scissor kick second at Anfield, the FA Cup Final equalizer against Palace, but those moments feel like sporadic flashes during much longer periods of ineffectiveness. In the main, Mata doesn’t do enough, often enough.
Those who leap to his defence and champion the technical aspects of his game should also be savvy enough to acknowledge that Mata is largely on borrowed time at United. A naturally charismatic and warm personality can only help to mask impotence in the final third for so long.
It’s generally accepted among United fans that there is a gaping hole down the right hand side of their attack. And while Mata is universally loved as a person, he is a level below what United need as a player. You know what they say about nice guys…