January 25th, 2014. Ex-Chelsea playmaker Juan Mata makes his grand entrance at Manchester United, arriving aboard a helicopter at Carrington to meet Ed Woodward and David Moyes, as the Spaniard moves in a then club-record £37.1 million transfer from Stamford Bridge to Old Trafford. Almost two years to that day Mata could be heading for the exit, with the rest of this season potentially determining his future.
As the diminutive United number eight heads toward his 28th birthday at the end of April he should be enjoying the prime of his career. Yet, Mata has struggled in a United shirt and has seen his output decline since his first two seasons in English football.
On this basic level Mata is not playing to the level that he reached at Stamford Bridge, particularly under Rafa Benitez, with whom the midfielder enjoyed his greatest season in 2012/13. In that campaign Mata was the focal point of Chelsea’s attack and the team’s creative hub – it does explain, to an extent, why the Spaniard hasn’t enjoyed the same success in Manchester.
Mata’s recent struggles have done him no favours. He was anonymous in losses to Bournemouth, Norwich City and Stoke City, with an improvement in recent fixtures against Chelsea and Swansea City. But during the side’s worst spell of the season United needed a senior player to step up. The Spaniard was nowhere to be found.
One theory holds that physical decline has set in after so many fixtures in so little time, although it is far-fetched. Mata has suffered no serious injuries that would accelerate such deterioration at such a young age. Still, progressive fatigue could potentially be a factor. After all, Mata has spent many of his summers on international duty with Spain.
In fact, between the 2011 and 2013, the Spaniard played 118 games of club football, excluding friendlies, and featured at the Euros with Spain. It is possible, due to so many fixtures, that Mata peaked early as a footballer.
Then there’s the question of the position in which Mata has been deployed. He has spent the majority of his time at Old Trafford on the right of midfield. Earlier this season he resembled a false nine playing wide, drifting inside to create and score goals.
Last season was a mixed bag, with the player sometimes forced to sit on the bench by Louis Van Gaal. Mata started the current season started brightly enough though, with goal and assist doubles against Southampton and Sunderland in back-to-back games. He also registered either a goal or an assist in fixtures against Aston Villa, Swansea, Liverpool, West Bromwich Albion, and both Champions League legs against Wolfsburg.
Yet, in recent times, this level of production has dried up. Mata has not registered an assist in the league since September, and his last goal was against West Brom in November. For a player of Mata’s quality and experience – and historical output – it is not good enough. Mata should be leading United’s attack, and yet he is one of the leading culprits in its failure.
In the Spaniard’s defence, he is also one of the greatest victims of Van Gaal’s stifling tactics. And to his credit Mata has developed some of his weaknesses and attempted to evolve as a footballer, working hard to be more defensively disciplined. While pressing and chasing the ball is not Mata’s natural instinct it is now a feature of his game.
Then there is the team’s style. Van Gaal’s preference for a tedious passing game was once thought of playing to Mata’s skills, especially the ability to open pockets of space with his passing. This is not the case. Mata has rarely been the point of creation within the team and is as guilty of slowing the pace and halting counter attacks as anyone – second only to Wayne Rooney.
It is Mata’s lack of pace that truly limits the midfielder and opponents seem to know it. In a team devoid of pace in many areas this weakness is further exposed. Too often it leaves Mata completely marginalised in some games, to an extent that supporters may not notice he is on the pitch. Mata averages, for example, fewer touches per game than Bastian Schweinsteiger, Michael Carrick, and Morgan Schneiderlin.
The Spaniard’s advocates say that this role on the right is the main source of his struggles and that playing Mata in his natural role at number 10 would restore the player to his former glories. However, in six appearances at 10 this season Mata has not registered a single goal and only one assist. On the right, however, he has five goals and four assists. On the basis of this, admittedly small sample size, it is a theory that does not hold.
Whatever the mix of factors they are combining to potentially result in the end of Mata’s time at United and in English football. To avoid that fate Mata must find a way to break through this barren spell and contribute more to the team.
Indeed, with a new manager potentially on the way if Van Gaal’s challenges continue – Jose Mourinho would surely be Mata’s worst nightmare – the Spaniard might find himself on the outside unless he makes himself indispensable. Right now he is not. The clock is ticking.