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Juan Mata: An overexcited analysis

Juan MataFollowers of football, it is said, have some of the shortest memories around. If the transfer saga involving Juan Mata, who today completed his £37 million move to Manchester United to Chelsea, is anything to go by, they might be getting shorter by the month.

To a certain extent, Chelsea fans can be forgiven for their sluggish recollection ability. Following a slow start under Jose Mourinho, the Stamford Bridge Victory Machine has ground into forebodingly full flow, efficiently churning out win after win after win as the season enters its inevitably tense denouement. They now sit two just two points off the top of the Premier League, having scored as many goals as Arsenal, the competition’s current leader. Mata has hardly featured in this impressive ascent, meaning that for many Chelsea fans, Mourinho’s selection policy has been proved justified.

Yet it is easy to forget, especially after several frantic days of rumour and negotiation, that Mata’s move is a surprising one for all concerned. In the cold light of day, of course, it is highly shocking that Chelsea would deem it sensible to sell the man who has comfortably walked away with their Player of the Year award in the last two seasons. After all, if Chelsea fans had been informed of this move would six months ago, there would likely have been a fan mutiny of considerable proportions at Stamford Bridge.

Granted, there are ways to justify the Mata transfer from a Chelsea point of view. From one perspective, the money United are offering for an out of favour player is too good to turn down, especially when the club’s net spend has fluctuated between -£70m and -90m over the last four years. The suits at Chelsea, after all, have Financial Fair Play regulations to bear in mind.

Yet even now, their ominously potent attacking threat – currently comprising of a first choice line-up of Edin Hazard, Oscar and Willian – is, as United will be able to qualify, always just one or two injuries away from assuming a distinctly average character once again. Their backup is no longer all that substantial.

It’s also a surprising move from United’s perspective. True, this is a United team crying out for reinforcements, particularly in central midfield. They could do with a left back, too, and perhaps a winger or two. A new No.10 will hardly have been top of the wish-list for the majority of the club’s followers.

It didn’t seem to be an immediate priority United management over the summer, either, with Moyes rumoured apparently turning down the opportunity to acquire Mezut Ozil from Real Madrid when news spread about the player’s availability. The argument goes that with a prospering Wayne Rooney, the mercurial Shinji Kagawa, fan favourite Danny Welbeck and the exciting potential talent of Adnan Januzaj amongst their ranks, a new playmaker is hardly amongst the top necessities at Old Trafford. Where, exactly, does Mata fit in to Moyes’ Master Plan?

mata2Fears that it will be difficult to find a place for Mata should not be overemphasised, though. This, after all, is a Manchester United side which has struggled to find any rhythm in the final third this season, repeatedly resorting to feeding endless balls out to their uninspired wingers to then repeatedly launch hopelessly into the box. Mata’s presence will put a stop to this. The Spaniard is able to play in most positions across an attacking lineup, including on the wing, and although justifiable fears remain about his inclination to track back (an quality traditionally as highly valued at Old Trafford as it is at Stamford Bridge), the Spaniard has improved greatly in this regard in recent months, and may prove far more willing to get stuck in now he has new team-mates at a new club to impress.

More importantly – and make no mistake about this – Mata is a player cut truly from the finest cloth. His numbers have proven consistently startling: Since August 2011, he put on more assists (27) than any other player in the Premier League with the exception of David Silva. The player in third position in that list is Wayne Rooney, his new team-mate. When combined with the 18 goals he has netted himself, Mata has been involved with 45 goals in the league across this same time period, more than anyone else except Robin Van Persie, with whom he will also line up with at Old Trafford.

Mata is a proven performer. He scored for Chelsea on his debuts in the Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League, League Cup and Club World Cup and is the only player, along with Fernando Torres, to hold the Europa League, Champions League, World Cup and European Championship simultaneously. He also has an extensive track record of delivering in the biggest of big games: most notably, there was his assist for Didier Drogba’s header in the 2012 Champions League Final, another for Branislav Ivanovic’s winner in the 2013 Europa League Final, and his goal in the Euro 2012 final against Italy.

Nor does he arrive at Old Trafford unproven in the Premier League. United have spent big on foreign talent before – the £24 million signing of Juan Sebastian Verón in particular springs to mind – but rarely have they invested big money on players already possessing proven ability to acclimatise to the league. The recent case of Shinji Kagawa is proof enough of the pricey risk of acquiring talent which has thrived abroad but perhaps lacks the specific physical requirements to prosper in England. Mata, of course, is already entirely acclimatised to the pace of the league. And at just 25, he could potentially play at the club for many years to come. He is, after all, 15 days younger than the recently departed Anderson, and three years younger than Rooney.

Another, rarely discussed positive to look forward to from the transfer will be the valuable expertise that Mata will bring in terms of set-piece delivery, an area where United have persistently struggled in recent years, with the brief exception of Robin van Persie last season. Indeed, the club are all too aware of his ability, having been on the receiving end of his excellent direct free kick strike which won a fixture at Old Trafford for Chelsea in the 87th minute at the end of last season. 

But Mata’s signing goes far beyond statistics and tactical mechanics. Despite his limited playing time this season, the Spaniard, as one of the finest attacking talents in world football, is an inspiring statement signing. His acquisition will come as a relief to many, for it proves that United, despite their traumatic 2013/14 to date, are still capable of attracting the game’s most glamorous and exciting names.  

Cultured, stylish, intelligent and talented, Mata is exactly the sort of personality Manchester United should be clambering to get through their doors. For Moyes, Mata is undoubtedly something of a slightly desperate and unimaginative panic buy. Fortunately for him and United, he’ll undoubtedly prove to be an extremely exhilarating and ruthlessly effective one.




  1. Sir Cecil

    January 25, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    A lot of United supporters are in for a shock. Jose Mourinho does not get rid of players without good reason. Juan Mata is extremely skillful – great first touch, lovely weight of pass, speed of thought, a great eye for a through ball and a solid finisher. But. It’s a fact that with Mata in the side for the last two seasons, Chelsea finished lower, and more points behind the leaders, than at any time since before the Abramovich era. Two seasons, two lowest positions. Yet how could this be anything to do with Mata, who did so well he was voted player of the year twice in succession?

    Very simple really. The player is a highlights-reel specialist. Show the highlights of a Chelsea win and Mata will feature, with a neat pass, a clever flick or a firm finish. People remember that. They see it enough times and they think it’s the culmination of a game-load of brilliance. But the actuality is very different. You see, Mata plays for ten minutes of each half. The other 70 minutes of the game he is almost invisible. And it’s during that time that his team can lose games – or at least, more games than they should. This is the difference between a great like Zola and a luxury like Mata – neither would ever be described as a tackler or defensive-minded, but Zola would show energy and commitment for 90 minutes. Even with his smaller physique, Zola was stronger and braver than Mata. A loss of points would never be attributable to Zola slacking for the majority of a game. However, that’s not the case with Mata.

    But let’s not compare Mata to an old Chelsea man. Rather, think of Man Utd players like Giggs or Scholes. If they played with the lack of defensive responsibility, challenge and energy shown by Mata, one would undoubtedly say “What’s the matter with them? They must be carrying injuries”.

    Jumping forward, a comparison with other current midfielders shows the likes of Silva, Corzola, Cabaye, Oscar, Modric, Xavi, Iniesta and a host of other current creative midfield players as more committed than Mata and, as a result, providing more sustained skills throughout the duration of every game. Those non-Utd who know Mata’s fear of grazing himself in a tackle will be pleased it is Mata who has gone to Old Trafford rather than any of the aforementioned. Even when Mata stirs himself to trot back into a hotly-contested part of the field, he will do nothing when he gets there. No tackles, no determination. If the ball breaks to him, he has the skill to use it well and sharply, but if it breaks to an opponent, Mata will just watch it go by with not a trace of effort to put things right.
    This is why Mourinho wanted him out. And as far as Mourinho is concerned, he’s passed a problem on to Man. Utd, not a saviour.

    Needless to say, there will be a honeymoon period when Mata’s undoubted skill and vision woos his new audience. But that will soon dissipate if the rest of the team doesn’t cover for his deficiencies. He is a player who allows midfield opponents the same freedom he himself requires, which can be disastrous.

    Mata is not the only out-of-favour Chelsea player who flatters to deceive. Lukaku at Everton is a clumsy beast who is more of a potential Emile Heskey than a Drogba. But again, highlights of games show his power and golalscoring, so everyone believes he is a 90-minute nightmare for any defender. Fact is, the Everton supporters are now cottoning-on to his obvious deficiencies and it’s clear that Mourinho was quite right to farm him out rather than trusting him to lead the line for one of the top teams in the world.

    Mourinho will also be proven right in his ejection of Mata. He knows what he’s doing and United followers will come to see why Mata was allowed to join them without a glimmer of a fight to keep him. Yes, there will be initial excitement as fans initially experience the good side of Mata’s game in United’s colors, but the the whispers will soon follow, as his lack of 90-minute graft and his strong sense of self-preservation become obvious. This isn’t a case of “might be”. It’s a case of “this is how it is”. If Mata’s contributions could be changed for the better, Mourinho would have done it – just as he did with Joe Cole, Robben, even Lampard. But the Chelsea manager weighed up Mata and saw there was nothing that could be done. It’s either take it or leave it and what you see is what you get.

    Apparently, Man Utd like what they see and that’s what they’ve got. Mourinho wanted more.

    • Redrich

      January 26, 2014 at 12:30 am

      @Sir Cecil: I think I’ve read this before. You feel the need to repeat yourself because…. perhaps you have nothing else to say?
      Go back to whatever blueblog you came from, learn a few other populist lines of rationale and then give us new reasons why JoMo is your saviour and Lord!

    • Man Utd Jaluo

      January 27, 2014 at 9:09 am

      @Sir Cecil: Your argument doesn’t really MATA at this time, What MATAs for us is that we got MATA. Get it? We can argue all day long about this but it doesnt MATA, eg RVP is a proven game winner, he might disappear in a game for 89 Mins but deliver on the 1 Minute that counts and that my friend is how we won the league last season, now think of potential 3 game winners in 1 team. THIS IS MAAAAATA!!!

    • Man Utd Jaluo

      January 27, 2014 at 9:09 am

      @Sir Cecil: Your argument doesn’t really MATA at this time, What MATAs for us is that we got MATA. Get it? We can argue all day long about this but it doesnt MATA, eg RVP is a proven game winner, he might disappear in a game for 89 Mins but deliver on the 1 Minute that counts and that my friend is how we won the league last season, now think of potential 3 game winners in 1 team. THIS IS MAAAAATA!!!

    • Nick

      January 31, 2014 at 9:04 pm

      @Sir Cecil: Wonderfully written, I share all of these sentiments. I would however argue that we could accommodate Mata if Moyes changed the system.

      Ironically he would not do it for Kagawa who in my opinion is a far better player but has not been allowed to shine in his best position. Moyes has played Kagawa in left midfield for all but one or two games and when he has been played centrally he has been hampered by the poor , Cleverley/ Fellaini axis. If he plays Mata LM then all of the frailties that Jose saw will be exposed

  2. Redrich

    January 26, 2014 at 12:42 am

    Agreed a little over excited and, agreed, a top notch signing.

    Mata is a great little player with tons of creative spirit. His worth to JoMo was far less because, lets face it, he demands total and absolute control over his sides for his philosophies to work. Mata was stymied by Mourinho and was unable to adapt to that kind of rigid style of play.
    It was a good piece of business by Chelsea (37m, wow!), it liberated Juan Mata and it gave us some much needed talent and creativity.

    All in all, I’d say it was a good transfer, period.

  3. Anon

    January 26, 2014 at 10:01 am

    @ Sir Cecil: Wow, you should become a
    Soothsayer mate… 🙂 What a nice way to welcome a world class player to the club.. I guess you would have thought along the same line when RVP came.. Give the man a chance, eh?

  4. Julian

    January 26, 2014 at 11:27 am

    The problem with Mata for Mourinho was his lack of pace and ability to track back and defend. I don’t think those are necessarily issues for what Mata is expected to do at United. We need someone to put his foot on the ball and create incisively. Mata can do that to great effect. He does need defensive cover though and perhaps Jones say, as a ball winner, would fulfil that role more adequately than Carrick does. Of course, Carrick’s qualities – passing and positional sense, as well as his experience, would be missed. I’m not sure someone like Jones, or Fellaini whom I have serious doubts about anyway, could develop Carrick’s skills in that regard. This is probably why Moyes is looking for another midfielder better equipped than the aforementioned to do that job.

    I’d like to think that Mata would be given a central role rather than out wide. Surely he’d be most effective playing in behind Rooney and RVP, when both are fit. Januzaj and Valencia could take up the wider positions. I must say, if Nani could regain his form and be more of a team player, I think he offers more than Valencia does in a more flexible midfield/attack.

    Despite the promise that Mata’s signature brings, Moyes must still have concerns about CB & LB as well as defensive MF. We do not look solid enough in central defence and Evra has seen his best days. He’s still good going forward but a defensively liability when he cant get back and there’s nobody to cover. We’re probably looking at three more signings before a greater measure of confidence in the team’s ability to achieve anything is restored.

    Great achievement that it is, Mata’s signing does not solve all the problems.

  5. Nick

    January 31, 2014 at 8:56 pm

    Unbelievably well written and intelligent piece written by someone that has a deep understanding of the game and MUFC I agree with the comment “For Moyes, Mata is undoubtedly something of a slightly desperate and unimaginative panic buy.” However disagree about your assessment of Kagawa. It’s not a coincidence that his best performances and in fact MUFC’s has been when he played in his correct position at CAM. The match against BL stands out as an example. It is also ironic that our other best performance was when we played a genuine CAM (Mata) in his best position. SO the question is now that we have two world class 10’s at the club will Moyes move away from his tried and trusted 442.

  6. TheWebSlinger

    April 3, 2014 at 6:51 pm

    For the loooooooooooonnnnnnggggggg comment at the top. You must be a Chelski or Jose fan boy! Yes your right Mata does not fit Jose the pragmatics style, but he did fit Mr Abrahamovich vision of progressive possession football, that he wanted upon buying Chelsea and what Jose failed at in every club he’s managed, including Real Madrid. If you think Luakaku wouldn’t have scored 20 goals for Chelsea in the league your mad! Better and more service as a decent striker you score more goals. He was farmed out like lots of very talented young players that Chelsea have snapped up in recent years. What happens to most? They get sold, loaned and never play for the parent club. That is one of the problems with rich/top teams. They buy all the best talent, even if it doesn’t fit their system/formation just so another top team don’t get them.

    I will agree though that for Jose systems Oscar is better, he’s a cheeky little tackler who shows you a run in without doing so and as soon as you look down at the ball to move it he is on you and a very adroit tackler, I think he will be very key for Brazil at the World Cup.

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