Has Juan Mata Exceeded Expectations At Manchester United?

Has Juan Mata Exceeded Expectations At Manchester United?
Feb 16, 2017

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It’s now been over three years since Juan Mata left West London to join the red side of Manchester for £37m, just months after picking up his second consecutive Player of the Year award at Chelsea. The Spaniard has now surpassed his Chelsea goal tally in all competitions with Manchester United, which begs the question, is he still as vital as he once was in blue?

After Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2013, Chelsea went from being a team constantly dwindling in various philosophies under rotating coaches to what the papers would define as a ‘new era’ under their new boss. It was finally time for The Special One to finish what he had started at Chelsea, and with attacking talent in the form of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Oscar, Andre Schurrle and Kevin De Bruyne all waiting on the arrival of the Portuguese in London, it was obvious to many that changes were on the horizon.

At the end of that summer’s transfer window, Chelsea bought Willian from Anzhi for £32m, which turned out to be the beginning of the end for Mata, who had been a fans’ favourite in West London since his arrival in August 2011.

The departure was accompanied by a heartfelt open letter to Chelsea fans explaining his desire to play regular football again, after being sidelined by Mourinho for months at Stamford Bridge.

He struggled to make an impact early on under David Moyes, but it wasn’t long before his manipulation of the ball, his ability to think two steps ahead of the opposition and his clinical finishing were appreciated among the masses again. Three managers down the line at Old Trafford, and ironically back under the guidance of Jose Mourinho, Mata seems to flourish – often as a substitute – when United are lacking creativity.

But does his goal-scoring record in Manchester suggest he’s a better player than the one that dominated the Chelsea Player of the Year awards for the two full seasons he found himself there?

His goals have maintained his status as an important player in the Manchester United squad; the 28-year-old has 34 goals in 133 matches, compared to the 32 goals he recorded in 132 matches at Chelsea. It seems bizarre to suggest that a man so influential in Chelsea’s team for two seasons, who pipped the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar to his accolades, would be sold without real justification.

If Juan Mata were to be judged on his involvement in goals alone, I have no doubt that he would be regarded as one of the world’s best midfielders. In fact, at the end of 2016, he was statistically the most clinical midfielder (for goals and assists) in the Premier League over the last five years.

But Jose Mourinho, as he so often does, stood by his philosophy-over-players mentality that meant Mata was surplus to requirements at Stamford Bridge. The Portuguese was building a new dynasty in West London and Mata was simply not capable of what was required defensively.

The argument against such a decision, of course, is to question why your number 10 should have to defend as much as Mourinho insisted? But football is an evolving game (as we’ve seen in the complete paradox of Leicester and Chelsea in the last two seasons) and Jose is not a man to sit back and watch.

For all the defending the Spaniard lacks integrity in, he surely makes up for in his contribution to goals and his influence on attacking football. At Chelsea, he found himself a regular in the middle of the three attacking midfielders, often with Eden Hazard to his left and Oscar to his right.

In the two full seasons and one – staggered – half season in blue, Chelsea’s number 10 recorded 32 goals and a remarkable 50 assists across all competitions. Though he has exceeded his goal tally already in his time at United, his involvement in goals seems to primarily be limited to his actual scoring, with less than half the assists (21) – only two in the Premier League this season.

Arguably he doesn’t start week in, week out like he did under Villas-Boas, Di Matteo, and Benitez, but if anything that highlights his importance to the way the Chelsea team worked above anything else. Mata is currently averaging a goal or an assist every 2.4 games at Manchester United, whereas he ended his career at Chelsea having scored or assisted every 1.6 games.

Since the arrival of Jose Mourinho back into English football, Juan Mata’s opportunities and influence has been limited. But is he being harshly treated or does his situation illustrate that in modern-day football you cannot afford to do one without the other? Perhaps it epitomises one of Mourinho’s philosophies, one that Eden Hazard and even youngster Ruben Loftus-Cheek were on the wrong end of at times in his Chelsea reign – talent alone doesn’t make you a world-beater.

Whichever way you choose to look at it, the statistics do not put any cloud of doubt over Juan Mata’s footballing ability. His goal-scoring record at United is remarkable for a midfielder who has often had to impress in the late stages of games, but the expressive freedom he had in his early two years at Chelsea provided him with the platform to influence games much more than he is able to now.

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