Juan Mata returns to Stamford Bridge on Saturday in fine form for Manchester United and ready to show Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea what they’re missing. Louis van Gaal has worked hard to find a position for the Spanish playmaker but is now reaping the rewards, writes Adam Bate…
Juan Mata will remember this fixture from last season. With Chelsea 3-0 up against Manchester United midway through the second half, Jose Mourinho elected to withdraw Oscar. But the Blues boss turned to John Obi Mikel rather than the playmaker among his substitutes.
“To see him on the bench is weird,” said international team-mate Santi Cazorla at the time. “He should ask Mourinho to know why he does not trust him.” The conversation must have been brief. Mata left Chelsea for Manchester United in a £37.1million deal the following week.
Although David Moyes welcomed Mata as “one of the finest playmakers in the game today” upon his arrival, the Spain international could have been forgiven for thinking he’d traded one awkward situation for another. He’d made only a dozen appearances for United before Moyes was sacked.
When Ryan Giggs went with youngsters Tom Lawrence, James Wilson and Adnan Januzaj for United’s final home game of the season, Mata was back among the unused substitutes once again. More worryingly, there was a growing suspicion that he was in danger of becoming an anachronism.
Such is Mourinho’s reputation as a tactician that his unwillingness to put Mata at the heart of his Chelsea plans led to a complete rethink regarding the midfielder’s credentials. Having been Chelsea’s player of the year twice in a row, there was suddenly a more critical eye on his performances.
Despite an impressive goal return in his first few months at Old Trafford, the ongoing malaise added to the sense that Mata was another problem to be solved rather than the answer itself. Gary Neville expressed the thoughts of many when questioning whether the 26-year-old was “dynamic enough”.
That feels a long time ago now. Mata showed just what he can contribute when he produced a man-of-the-match display in a 2-1 win over Liverpool last month, scoring both of United’s goals along the way – including a stunning volley to double the lead.
But perhaps even more significant for United boss Louis van Gaal was the cohesion within the team against an in-form Liverpool side. “We beat them with their own weapons,” said Van Gaal afterwards. “With the pressure on the ball.” Mata was an integral part of that.
With him currently keeping out Angel di Maria, the British record signing perceived as the solution to United’s lack of dynamism, this recent run of form must be regarded as a personal triumph for the ever-willing Spaniard. His work rate certainly stands up to scrutiny.
Mata is one of seven players to run over 30 kilometres in United’s last three games. However, having been withdrawn late on in the 4-2 win over Man City, he’s actually covered more ground per minute than the other six. More than the hard-running Ander Herrera. More than the fleet-footed Antonio Valencia.
There has been much talk about United’s combination play on the left wing being critical to the team’s resurgence but the balance on the right has been just as important, with Van Gaal constructing a trio that complements each other well. Mata finally has the system to support him.
The attacking forays of Valencia down the flank are stretching opponents and giving him space in which to work, while Herrera’s improving positional discipline means Mata has a team-mate close by on whom he can rely and indulge in the sort of neat interplay that has always been his forte.
For Van Gaal, it’s no accident. “I think Juan Mata is always one of my better players,” he said. “Always. Now he is playing as a false right-winger and the combination with Herrera and Valencia gives him more opportunities. I was looking for balance and now I have found a position for him.”
Not only has Mata scored eight Premier League goals at a better rate than he ever achieved at Chelsea, but he’s also creating opportunities for others. According to Opta, only Di Maria has fashioned more clear chances for United and Mata has done so in a far more efficient way – finding a team-mate with 82.2 per cent of his passes in the final third compared to the Argentine’s 69.4 per cent.
Mata has brought precision amid the energy around him. No wonder Van Gaal delivered his verdict on his new team shape with the satisfied smirk of a man who has solved a jigsaw puzzle when he didn’t even realise he was in possession of all the pieces. All that remains is to present the opus to his old friend Jose.
It’s a situation that the player will surely relish too and means Mata can return on a high to the club where he became a European champion in 2012. “Going back to Stamford Bridge for the first time will bring me plenty of good memories,” he said this week. “But obviously, our intention is to get the three points.
“The best thing is that we go to this game in a very good moment, with confidence.” And when Mata is playing with confidence in a team set up to give him a platform to perform, Chelsea fans know better than anyone that there’s no finer sight in the Premier League.