What could have been is a dangerous mindset in football. If you ponder too long you can lose sight of what matters: what could be.
With Manchester United, Juan Mata, a truly special footballer, spent the rest of his prime in a footballing institution that has continually failed to settle on a vision for, let alone realize, what could be. What’s resulted is a cacophony of philosophies and talents, never quite molded into a final form despite multiple attempts. He played under ever post-Fergie manager, through multiple “rebuild” projects, and yet throughout all of that, Juan Mata was exceedingly lovely to watch, and persisted to provide us with some truly charming moments of football.
Mata was quality to the point that branding him a cult hero almost feels like a disservice. It isn’t for a lack of praise from the fanbase however, as he’s truly got plenty of that, but rather his career has been stretched so thin at Manchester United that he’s almost become an afterthought in the present. He signed a 3-year extension in the summer of 2019 after becoming more of a squad player than a starter, and made only 28 appearances over his last two seasons with the club. The remaining years of his prime came and went so quickly that by the time the team started to resemble something with an identity under Solskjaer he was already becoming a figure of the club’s past, clinging to the fringes of the first team. But that shouldn’t dictate his career, or even his time at United.
Arriving in January of 2014, cast out of Chelsea’s plans by Jose Mourinho, Mata came to a Manchester United side that was desperate for a spark. There was however nothing to ignite, and Mata became one of many remarkably talented players to never quite find their way, but who nevertheless produced memorable and at times mesmeric football.
Juan Mata’s graceful game helped Manchester United a number of times, but his most notable goals are certainly the Juanfield brace, his equalizer in the 2016 FA Cup Final comeback win, and the free kick equalizer in Turin against Juventus. Moments placed now within a vast, confusing, and largely regrettable period in the rich history of a great club. And yet they are moments that will be remembered, and are moments that have served Mata well in the eyes of a footballing community that even now cannot see clearly from match to match.
Mata probably deserves more, as do many who have struggled through these times with this club, but what covers the present in uncertainty and doubt shouldn’t prevent him from getting receiving his flowers. We can’t go back, but we can appreciate his time and contributions at United for what it was. There have been bad times as well as good in the history of Manchester United, and there will certainly be more, but a club that never dies has to endure both.
“He is an entirely pleasant man who has given me good memories, and I wish they were better,” said Colton, and friend and fellow fan/writer. “I would love to buy him a beer, or perhaps a beautiful glass of Sherry on a Sunny beach. He deserves love and I have nothing but that for him.”
Others came up with “Juanfield,” “Selfless,” “Common Goal,” “Professional,” and “Hugs, Juan” when I asked for what came to mind on the subject of Juan Mata, whose Common Goal charitable foundation has helped make a difference and bring in athletes across the world in support of social change. He’s United’s resident blogger as well, and just a generally nice guy as well as accomplished player.
Mata deserves more than dwelling on what could have been, and it’s good to see that was generally shared on the timeline Monday night. He’s made a lasting impression wherever he’s gone, and he deserves more good things coming his way in his footballing career. Juan Mata was the first of the post-Fergie cult heroes, and the positivity about him is as much a part of his time in red as anything else.