Manchester United already have the ideal midfielder for Erik ten Hag’s style of play
It’s a crying sadness that a glittering career filled with innumerable flashes of brilliance appears to be coming to a close. At least, at Manchester United.
Juan Mata has won the World Cup, European Championship, Champions League, FA Cup, League Cup, Europa League, and Copa del Rey during his career. He was a player who was spectacular when he moved to the Premier League with Chelsea and continued that brilliance for a spell at Old Trafford after playing a crucial role in one of the greatest national teams of all time.
Nonetheless, despite having spent the last eight years of his career with United, the vast bulk of it is forgotten, which is absurd. When you think of Mata highlights, the only one that comes to mind is his incredible overhead kick against Liverpool.
Despite scoring 51 goals and providing 47 assists, no other moments stand out, owing to the fact that the team was never formed around him. Even though he possesses all of the necessary skills, he has never been elevated to the position of the main man.
When United managed to snare Mata away from Chelsea, where he’d been absolutely magnificent in the No.10 role for two-and-a-half seasons, it was a genuine, startling coup. In fact, despite playing nearly 150 more games at United, he only scored eight more goals than he did at Stamford Bridge.
That simply goes to illustrate how efficient he was in an offensive midfield position, despite the fact that United rarely, if ever, used him there. Mata was frequently shifted out to the sides in order to accommodate someone else, whether it was Wayne Rooney, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, or a slew of other more defensive-minded midfielders.
At the very least, he was playing, as he hasn’t kicked a ball in the last two seasons. In the previous campaign, he was given only 861 minutes, which has now been reduced to a mere 311. Mata, who recently turned 34, maybe maturing, but his acute lack of playing time is perplexing. Especially considering how bad United has been this season and how much they have missed a guy with his exact skill set.
United has been devoid of creative spark, inspiration, ingenuity, and even basic passing skill for the whole season, even having Mata sitting on the bench twiddling his thumbs – assuming he was even that lucky. Mata is still more than capable at the top level, as proved on Monday as United strolled to a 3-0 win over Brentford in the greatest performance of Ralf Rangnick’s tenure.
He started his first league encounter of the season – a disgrace – against the visiting Bees, and United looked much more coherent with him on the pitch and, critically, playing centrally. The ball was moved fast, thrilling passes were completed, assaults were sewn together rather than unraveling, and Cristiano Ronaldo appeared energized by the presence of a player on his wavelength alongside him. Mata’s wizardry was on display once more at Old Trafford, but it will almost definitely be the last time.
Mata’s contract will expire this summer, and his emotional send-off on Monday suggests that another year extension is unlikely. This is a pity because he is well suited to what Erik ten Hag will want to bring to the side.
United’s midfield desperately needs to be revamped in order to provide the incoming manager with a profile of players capable of carrying out his attractive style of attacking football. However, if Mata stays, there will be one less signing required, at least in the short term.
Mata has never been a player who relied on pace or any other physical trait; his game has always been about a spectacular level of talent, poise, and technique. There is little doubt that he is the proper fit for a Ten Hag team and that he might play a significant part if he stays.
There are valid reasons that a clearout is required in order for the Dutchman to stamp his own mark on things, but Mata isn’t and never has been a disruptive influence, even when his lack of playing time must have been vexing. In fact, the respect he commands and his knowledge would be beneficial in any locker room.
Mata still has all the qualities to make an impact, as he will likely discover next season when he goes to Spain and has an inevitable career revival, and it will be United’s loss if he is allowed to demonstrate that elsewhere.