“Juan Mata has those type of qualities,” Manchester United legend Paul Scholes said this week identifying “a link player who must have the quality to pass and create, someone like a [Kevin] De Bruyne, [Eden] Hazard or David Silva”, as a crucial piece missing from Jose Mourinho’s team.
“The problem Mata has," Scholes continued, "is that the manager plays him wide on the right-hand side and he’s never going to have the legs to play that position. I’ve been there, been put out wide and you hate it. You want to get into the middle of the pitch where pace isn’t as vital.”
As an ex-United player turned television pundit, Scholes is allowed to speak his mind. Mata is not – at least publicly. He is under contract at United until 2019 and must do as his master Mourinho requests. United have others capable of playing in that link role but none of them are established in the position as Mata.
Mata remains dutiful. He is intelligent, friendly, compassionate – the Spaniard has been the focal point for the Common Goal charity that sees footballers give one per cent of their wages to social causes. But for now, he wants to be judged first as a footballer, one who thinks he still has much to give. But which position?
You can look at his career two ways. When Spain played England in Sevilla on Monday, Mata, who has 41 caps, wasn’t even in the squad. He has not played for Spain for two years, but his international career remains commendable, and he scored in the final of Euro 2012 when Spain trounced Italy. That was the year he also lifted the Uefa Champions League title as a stalwart of Chelsea.
At 30 years old Mata still has three or four years ahead of him at the top. Does he stay at United or become a bigger fish, most likely on a lower salary, at the many clubs who covet him? He was greeted enthusiastically by Valencian journalists and staff when United met his former side at Old Trafford two weeks ago in a Champions League group game. Inter Milan have also shown an interest.
Mata has the intelligence and cultural understanding to see the attraction of playing and living in Japan or the United States. He loves to travel and experience new cultures with his long-term partner. Football can help him do that.
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Mata averages 42 games per season since signing for United in January 2014, 35 as a starter. Don’t be surprised at the number of games – he played over 70 games for Chelsea and Spain in 2012/13, scoring 18 goals and assisting 31 times for Chelsea, more than any player in England.
But as he approaches his fifth anniversary since moving to Old Trafford for a then record fee of £37.1 million (Dh179m) Mata is not quite so productive. But United’s current form undoubtedly plays a large part in that.
Mata has started only two of United’s eight league games this season – the first two. The second was in the first-half abomination at Brighton & Hove Albion, when he was taken off at the break. He hasn’t started a league game since. You couldn’t image Romelu Lukaku being kept out of the side for so long off the back of a poor 45 minutes when everyone else in a red shirt was equally as bad.
In United’s last game, Mata came on for Eric Bailly in the 19th minute with his side 2-0 down. The Asturian’s 70th minute free kick got United back into the game as they roared back to beat Newcastle United 3-2. He played on the right of midfield, as he often does. Not since a defeat at Newcastle away in February has Mata started in his favoured central attacking midfield role.
He is stationed on the right partly because United don't have a natural right winger and partly because he has done so well there in the past. What he lacks in strength and pace, he makes up for by his excellent use of space and timing. Perhaps a more attack-minded right-back to replace the slowing Antonio Valencia would help him, too.
Mata’s goals have dried up from 10 in each of his first three full seasons at Old Trafford to only three last term. He knows there’s room for improvement, but he is playing in a disjointed side which doesn’t create many chances .
Mata will be welcomed by Chelsea fans if he plays at Stamford Bridge on Saturday and cheered by United fans too. That’s if he’s selected – and it’s a big if, since he has played only 45 out of a possible 450 minutes in five games for United against his former club under Mourinho.