Juan Mata exclusive: 'I hope to be part of a Manchester United team fighting for the big trophies'
Spanish midfielder talks to Andy Mitten about his reasons for signing a new contract, reflects on his United career to date, and explains how pre-season is going
David de Gea doesn't say much in public, but in private there is one story he loves to tell his teammates.
“David tells me about when United last won the Premier League in 2013,” his compatriot Juan Mata tells The National. “He remembers how the whole of the city was full of United fans and about the team bus going through the centre of Manchester with fans climbing on the buildings in Deansgate.”
Mata arrived in Manchester seven months after that 20th title win as the club’s record signing, helicoptered in to boost a dying season under David Moyes.
A 2012 Uefa Champions League winner with Chelsea, the Asturian had just missed out on United being England’s best team, but he wasn’t a quick fix. He has been in Manchester five years now; only Anthony Martial has more goals than him from the current players and he genuinely likes the city and its people.
The Spaniard, who reads books on typography and sport autobiographies, also has a Spanish restaurant on Deansgate but he is yet to need to close it because thousands of United fans are on the street outside as happened six years ago.
“I want to feel that celebration,” says Mata, who has just signed a new two year contract to stay at United. “I hope to live again through the experiences which United fans deserve, to be part of a team fighting for the big trophies.”
There is not a United fan who would disagree, but the reality has been far less palatable. United won two of their final 12 games at the end of last season and finished sixth, 32 points behind champions and local rivals Manchester City.
All that from the team with the second highest wage bill in world football. Fans were not happy, they are still not happy, and they have been underwhelmed by the transfer activity so far.
“I can understand why the fans felt like at the end of the season,” Mata says. “Results were not good and in the last game of the season we lost at home to a team who had been relegated. We let people down, we let ourselves go. We lost the chance to compete in the Champions League.”
After Mata’s first season at Old Trafford, he was struck by how there was still a lap of honour in the last game after they had finished seventh.
“That just wouldn’t happen in Spain at a huge club where expectations are as high as they are at United,” he told me at the time.
But the end of the 2018/19 season wasn’t so much a lap of honour, more a walk of shame. How does a team go from winning away to Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Paris Saint-German, to losing at home to Cardiff City?
Mata considers the question carefully. “It’s a mix of things including the mental side. I understand that the fans want more. We have to demand more from each other [as players]. The manager talks about higher standards, not only in the games but every single day. We have to know what it means to be a United player and know what we represent.”
Mata is optimistic. He has to be.
“The [pre-season] training is excellent – for different reasons,” he says as United get their tour under way with a win in Perth, Australia. “One of them is that we had a lot of sessions in two weeks, productive sessions with almost every player training almost every day.
"It has been good from a physical point of view and we’ve had time to work on tactics and the way we want to play. We are still not at our best but we still have five more games and we're doing OK so far.”
Photos from Manchester United's win over Perth Glory
Like his friend Ander Herrera, Mata could have left United the end of last season. There were offers to move elsewhere, to play Champions League football, but he wanted to stay.
“We’ve had positive and negative moments during my time here,” he says. “We’ve won trophies but last season was difficult. I understand the disappointment and negativity from the fans and, honestly, it’s the same for us.
"But despite how the season ended, despite our rivals winning, I wanted to sign a new contract. Being in this club is unique for a football player and I wanted to continue that. The feeling of being a United player is still special. There are three or four of the biggest clubs in world football and Manchester United is one of them.”
Mata feels that he can still offer plenty as a player, to create more moments like his two goals at Anfield in 2015.
“I want to score, I assist,” says the former Valencia and Chelsea player.
The 31-year-old is popular among fans. Not all were convinced or happy when he signed the new contract, but then there wasn’t a lot of love for any United player at the end of last season.
Yet Mata, who started 16 of 38 league games and only 21 games all season - the lowest amount since he joined - was the only player to score in all four competitions last term. The high point was a free-kick that led to a win over Juventus in Turin and he didn’t play in any of the five league games Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team lost in the last nine matches.
Let’s not pretend that had he been playing against Manchester City in April then the result would have been different, but after he signed his new contract, his Solskjaer talked about Mata’s experience and character being a positive influence in a dressing room short of both. Those words were not hollow and Mata is keen to underline them.
“You need a mix of players in a dressing room including experience and I’ve been a professional footballer for 13 years. I’ve seen good professionals, I’ve seen younger players lose their head and think they are better than what they are. So I feel I can help younger players and there are very good young players at Manchester United.”
Mata is versatile, he finds space, he is technically adept, and he is committed. He’s not likely to play every game next season but that doesn’t matter - successful teams need squads.
Mata prefers playing centrally as a No 10 which is doable when United play 4-2-3-1, less so when they play 4-3-3 where he plays on the right. There, he could be joined by United’s new signings so far, Daniel James and Aaron Wan Bissaka.
“Aaron and Daniel are good guys who have the right mentality and hunger to grow in this club. Both give us speed going forward,” he says.
“I am optimistic about this season. We all learned from last season. We have to give everything; we have to have the right mentality. And by doing that things will improve.”
United’s first league game is against his former club Chelsea. So highly regarded is the man who supports the Common Goal charity movement where sports stars give one per cent of their wages to support social causes, that Chelsea fans regularly applaud him.
There will be no niceties when United’s season starts. Words are not enough when a team like United is failing and while Mata kept his popular weekly blog going as United slumped, things got so bad to the point where he wrote: “You deserve better. No more words needed. Juan.”
Mata is confident that he will not have to say that again. Manchester United will be better for having him around in these turbulent times.
Updated: July 15, 2019 10:29 AM