Last week Juan Mata’s solitary strike against Manchester City was enough to send Manchester United into the next round of the EFL Cup and this prompted some noteworthy praise from Phil Neville:
“I was here [at Manchester United] when we actually bought Juan Mata,” Neville told Sky Sports. “He is never injured, he provides a lot of assists, he plays in two or three different positions, and he scores important goals. I actually thought he would be the first out of the door when Jose came, but he’s actually becoming one of the most important players.”
While there are better people in football to earn praise from and despite his annoying over-use of the word ‘actually,’ Phil Neville makes a valid point. Mourinho notably considered him a luxury player at Chelsea, but Mata has proved himself to be a necessity at Old Trafford. Mata noted as much as early as October last year:
“In terms of scoring and assisting I’m quite happy with the stats, and stats don’t lie. They are facts. If a luxury player is a player who scores and assists and has good stats, then I’m happy to be a luxury player.”
The stats that Mata speaks of do make fine reading: 117 appearances, 29 goals and 18 assists. Being involved in 47 goals is particularly impressive given that his time at the club has been characterised by upheaval with changes of managers, positions and systems.
Since arriving in the Premier League in the 2011/2012 season, he has been involved in 82 goals, which places him joint top for midfielders with Manchester City’s David Silva. He is consistently productive and Jose Mourinho should continue to prioritise Mata over Paul Pogba in the number ten position, certainly until the latter shows he can offer similar levels of consistency.
Mourinho commented last month that Mata now had “a natural habitat for his football” and that the team was “trying to play in a different way that is very adapted to his qualities.” It seems he was not just paying lip service either as Mata was named captain of the side on Saturday against Burnley.
Mata was arguably the best player on the pitch that day, completing 100% of his passes, take-ons and tackles, while creating eight chances and taking six shots. If a goal was going to come, you felt Mata was going to be involved.
However, when Mourinho started looking for different solutions to score a goal, he replaced Mata and Marcus Rashford with Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini. It doesn’t take what Mourinho calls a “football Einstein” to figure out the chances of breaking down Burnley’s resistance would have been greater had Mata remained on the pitch when those are the replacements.
The substitution is part of a wider trend going back to Louis van Gaal’s reign of taking him off early, which makes sense perhaps when you are looking to protect a result but not when you are desperately looking to score a goal.