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What Juan Mata’s new contract tells us about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United

Why is a fringe player getting a new deal? His role goes beyond the pitch.

Manchester United v Granada CF - UEFA Europa League Quarter Final: Leg Two Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

In the month of March, we’d likened Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s managerial tenure to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey famously inspired George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars saga. Like in the famous saga, United fell short during the culmination of the second act – only Villarreal aren’t quite the Death Star and Unai Emery is no Darth Vader.

But that’s not the only reason that analogy might’ve been a bit premature. Next season might not lead to the third act: the resolution. This saga looks like it might have more episodes to it and for our sake, we hope that it doesn’t get the reputation of the much-maligned prequels and sequels.

There have been talks of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being offered a new contract that he almost certainly is going to sign and he is not the only one; United’s dainty playmaker Juan Mata has already signed on the dotted line and will be donning the red for another season.

There is good reason to question both contracts. Tifo Football, the popular YouTube channel had uploaded a video on Sir Alex Ferguson to explain game theory in football two years ago. To put it briefly, Sir Alex played an infinite game during a time where managerial tenures were becoming exponentially finite.

Sir Alex was allowed such wide latitude because he’d earned the right to and it also suited his highly successful managerial modus operandi. The contract handed to Mata is a sign that this is also Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer’s approach to management. While Solskjaer’s at the helm, whether people believe he’s the chosen one or otherwise, he should be allowed to operate in the manner that he sees fit.

The piece from March also focused heavily on tactical identities. The Busby Babe recently had the Athletic’s Carl Anka for a podcast, who echoed some of the statements from that article and how most other managers today come with a package – these tactical identities. These tactical identities could be better understood as theories. Unlike England, a nation that has a long history of anti-intellectualism, the rest of Europe has a great history with theory.

In football, these tactical theories have been proliferated in recent years because of increasing competition, which leads to a need for the most marginal advantages that these tactical theories and the managers who propound them come with.

Now, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as we’ve repeatedly stated is tactically astute but his team doesn’t have a cohesive identity in their play. If he has to compete, he’ll have to conjure up other marginal advantages. This brings us to Juan Mata.

Juan Mata’s emblematic of the stasis in the post-Ferguson years. Mata’s career was on an upwards arc a year before signing for the club in January 2014. He was a star in the Spanish youth sides, was going to herald the next generation with a goal in the Euro 2012 final, won the Champions League with Chelsea in dramatic circumstances, and was their player of the year for two seasons running.

And then it all went down the mire when he wasn’t in Jose Mourinho’s plans at Stamford Bridge. He then joined a club that was going through its own identity crisis post-Ferguson.

There have always been doubts about Mata’s fit at United. Sir Alex would often highlight how his teams always needed pace, power, and penetration. On the suggestion of assistant coach René Meulensteen, Ferguson bought Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund in his final season.

Kagawa, like Mata, was a bit of a stylistic departure from the sort of player United had historically signed. Not to suggest that players of the kind can’t fit the Ferguson model since Kagawa had just signed from Jurgen Klopp’s heavy-metal Dortmund side. Now, David Moyes wasn’t Sir Alex but the hope was that he’d carry the Fergiesms that had been implanted at the club.

All the backroom-wrangling with poor managerial appointments and player recruitment didn’t help and Mata like many a fan had to just inure it for many seasons. But it’s not been all bad. His oeuvre includes Juanfield, the winner at Turin, the goal that led the FA Cup final comeback, and more.

For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the number of appearances have been scant but there is the sense that he trusts Mata unconditionally.

Need to chaperone the kids? Call Juan Mata.

Job’s looking a little shaky and need someone to placate it? Call Juan Mata.

Need someone to lead the penalty shootout in your biggest game to date? Call Juan Mata.

These are the sort of marginal advantages that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be looking for.

The fans love Juan Mata. There’s no gesticulating when he’s subbed, he’s almost always available, and there’s talk that he’s long been considered for an ambassadorial role at the club.

While all of that is true, Juan Mata’s still an ancillary character in this story, and supporting casts are all good if the main cast is taken care of. There will be groans that United should take care of the main cast before handing out contracts to others, and that’s a fair point. There’s also the case of Juan Mata the player. Is this what he wants?

Mata’s no Obi-Wan Kenobi wistfully smiling down at the victorious rebel force, is he? He’s only 33 years old and could offer so much to another side with his play. So why stay?

Maybe it’s a case of Stockholm syndrome but it really seems like Juan Mata’s made this choice of his own volition and embraced this role. In 2020, he’d featured on the MUTV podcast and admitted to envisioning a sea of red outside Old Trafford as a Premier League champion with Manchester United. Maybe that’s what he’s holding onto.

Juan Mata’s Players Tribune piece features a great passage that typifies who he is.

Here’s an excerpt recalling the 2012 Champions League final:

Mata’s note to Luke Shaw was trending the other day. The left-back is enjoying the best period in his career. Looks like El Mago doesn’t just have magic in those boots. It’s why we love Juan Mata and it’s only fair that we believe in him as he believes in this club.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer values this more than anything as a manager. He has an unflinching belief that this is important to Manchester United. If he’s playing an infinite game, this contract makes sense. Whether he’s earned the right to? We shall find out soon.