Juan Mata never quite fit in at Manchester United. The Spaniard’s talent and personality always made him a popular figure at Old Trafford, but when his departure was announced last week, it signalled the end to a curious and, at worst, baffling seven-and-a-half-year spell with the club.
Signed in January 2014 by David Moyes for a then-club-record fee of £37.5m, Mata arrived seemingly as the antidote to early teething problems under the Scot, just six months after he replaced Sir Alex Ferguson. Moyes and the new CEO, Ed Woodward, had failed to make any real statement recruits in the summer; they’d chased Gareth Bale and Cesc Fabregas to no avail, eventually settling for Marouane Fellaini from Moyes’ old club Everton late in the window. To sum up the mess they’d made, they’d missed the chance to sign the Belgian at a knockdown price. All that really showed was the panic that had set in by the time the deal was done.
In the winter, Moyes was already floundering. The title defence handed to him by Ferguson was in tatters and his side needed inspiration; by that point, there was no real forethought into where it should come from, but a big-name was needed to, at the very least, buy some time. But where would one become available at that time in the season? It just so happened that Jose Mourinho, back at Chelsea for a second spell and famed for always taking a dislike to one of his players, was in the process of usurping Mata from the frame at Stamford Bridge. Mata was the darling of the Chelsea fans, their Player of the Year two years running, but Mourinho had been summoned to restore some order after some turbulent years in west London and what he said, went.
So, perfect fit, right? A proven Premier League star available for a deal to suit all parties, coming into a team with no guile and in desperate need of ingenuity. It wasn’t that simple, because Moyes and Woodward had acted on Mata’s availability and little else. There was no plan to integrate him, and he actually contributed to an imbalance within the squad, giving Moyes an instant headache.
Operating best as a number 10, in the pockets of space between midfield and attack, Mata struggled to find his best position. That was in part because Moyes had just reintegrated Wayne Rooney and given him a new contract — ironically after he spent the entire summer flirting with Mourinho and Chelsea — and then came the Fellaini issue. Three players were vying for one space, so Moyes improvised and compromised. Mata was deployed on the right of a three in behind the striker, and not surprisingly, he couldn’t thrive.
Moyes paid for two disastrous windows with his job by March. He has since spoken about trying to plan around his six-year contract, which while exposing the injustice he’d suffered, showed nativity on his part. Louis van Gaal replaced him, and the philosophy and squad changed; there was more forethought involved under the Dutchman, but still Mata couldn’t find his place consistently. There were glimpses of his quality – a brace in a 2015 victory over Liverpool at Anfield chief among them — but hardly enough justification for his status.
Van Gaal won the FA Cup a year later, but was then sacked. Mata did surprisingly well under Mourinho, the man came in next, considering the manner of their parting at Chelsea; it was no coincidence that as the team morphed into needing more creativity from central areas under the Portuguese and then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, calls for Mata’s involvement increased. But as he aged, his presence as a first team player diminished. He signed a new contract in 2019, rather inexplicably, and as with a number of first team players, he leaves probably years after he should have done.
There was no lack of goodwill to wave Mata off, but his exit was necessary. It is a sad tale of what might have been; the ultimate tale of the right man at the wrong time. What follows next should be a swansong the 34-year-old fully deserves.
He has a lot to offer, off the pitch as well as on it. You’d be hard pressed to find a better professional, and his calming influence off the pitch will prove as valuable as his intermittent magic on it. That is all to come in a fitting end to his career, more fitting than it ever felt in Manchester.