An ode to Juan Mata and what might have been
When the end of Mata's time at United comes, it will be difficult to assess it without experiencing a few pangs of regret, a nagging sense of what might have been
Its beauty lay in its simplicity. A well-timed dart into a pocket of space, two deft touches and a feint, quickly followed by a measured shot between the legs of a defender.
The goal he scored on Wednesday night was a small reminder of the Juan Mata of old: a fresher-faced, cleaner-shaven Mata, who first bubbled into our consciousness somewhere amidst that seemingly never-ending wave of technically brilliant, dainty little Spanish playmakers at the turn of the last decade. There was the intelligence and anticipation, the ethereal touch and cool-headed poise to engineer just enough room to make something happen. This was the same Mata who dazzled on Chelsea's run to a Champions League title 8 years ago; who, at just 22, was part of his country's World Cup-winning squad.
Game over? 🔴
Juan Mata grabs Man Utd's second at Brighton
📺 Watch live on Sky Sports Football pic.twitter.com/z5YLXa1kLt
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) September 30, 2020
The harsh truth, though, is that the days of World Cup finals and Champions League glory were a long time ago. This was a Carabao Cup tie in a biblical rainstorm in Brighton. Mata is 32 now and his Manchester United appearances - particularly starts - are increasingly rare. For the biggest of games, a substitute appearance is the best he can hope for: someone to come on and help keep possession when a goal or two up.
Clearly, the sun is setting on his time at Old Trafford. Perhaps this will be his final season as a United player. Perhaps, in the confusing maelstrom that is the club's shambolic approach to another transfer window, he will be on his way much sooner if an enticing offer arrives. Whenever the end does come, though, it will be difficult to assess Mata's time as a United player without experiencing a few pangs of regret, a nagging sense of what might have been.
Of the many frustrations about United's team in this post-Ferguson era, their failure to ever fully harness the Spaniard's creative talents and make him the true focal point of their attack has been one of the more maddening aspects. His helicopter arrival all those years ago was brief cause for optimism midway through the dreariness of the David Moyes season. After a wretched start, it was supposed to symbolise a leap forward into an exciting new dawn. United were back to reassert themselves and here was their oven-ready playmaker to add some much-needed craft and jumpstart their misfiring frontline. A Champions League winner, a World Cup winner, Premier League-proven and approaching the peak years of his career. Surely a catalyst for better things?
Well, not quite.
Make no mistake about it, Mata has had wonderful moments in a United shirt. He has scored important goals in cup finals and, memorably, at Anfield. He is universally loved by the fanbase for doing so. And yet, from the very beginning, he's rarely been guaranteed a starting berth, caught in the awkward middle ground of being too useful to get rid of yet not useful enough to play a more prominent role. You wonder what might have been had he arrived in a more settled period for United, if the club had some semblance of a long-term vision instead of lurching from one crisis to the next.
Moyes had gone before the helicopter blades had stopped spinning. His replacement, Louis van Gaal, valued Mata for his intelligence and ability to adapt. Often, this meant shoehorning him into wider positions - a "false right-winger", the Dutchman once described it - where his lack of pace and physicality stifled his creative influence on the team. Under Jose Mourinho, who had deemed him surplus to his requirements while at Chelsea, there were fleeting good moments. Despite the Portuguese's penchant for a robust, physically imposing spine to his teams, there were rare occasions where Mourinho deployed Mata off the striker - his best position. Not helped by United's ponderous build-up play, however, he was again more commonly deployed in a wider position on the right.
Even before Mourinho was replaced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer there was a feeling that, for factors beyond the control of United, Mata had already passed a point of no return. Gradually, the role of the more advanced, number ten-style playmaker has become less fashionable in European football with the rise in holding midfielders denying them the space to dictate play between the lines. If the window of opportunity for Mata to become anything vaguely resembling that kind of player at Old Trafford hadn't already closed, the arrival of the more dynamic Bruno Fernandes slammed it shut and pulled down the blackout blind.
And so, this is how the remainder of Mata's United career looks set to play out: a mix of substitute appearances and the odd start in a cup competition. Like Wednesday, there will occasionally be a flash of the old Mata, and when there is, people might think back to the player he was, or how he has devoted the better years of his career to a team in a near constant state of flux. They might wonder what could have been had United appointed the right manager or signed a Toni Kroos or a Thiago Alcantara to play behind him (not Marouane Fellaini) when they had the chance.
These have been turbulent years at Old Trafford. It's difficult not to view Juan Mata as one of the more unfortunate passengers of the post Ferguson ride.