Manchester United had been going through a tough time.
They had lost to Arsenal in the Premier League, drew against Wolves in the FA Cup, and were embarrassed by Manchester City in their Carabao Cup semifinal first leg tie.
The Red Devils needed a spark to change things, especially going forward. The front three of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood were improving on a weekly basis, but they needed someone behind them to offer some support.
United needed a classic number 10, as their other options had let them down. Paul Pogba started the season well, but injuries have kept him off the field since then. Andreas Pereira lacks the creativity to break down opposing defences, especially if they’re in a low block. Jesse Lingard didn’t score or assist in the Premier League in all of 2019, so that says everything that needs to be said about him.
With the January transfer window only in its infancy, that meant no reinforcements were coming anytime soon either. Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had to find the answer for this problem from within the club, and was able to do that courtesy of a long standing servant.
Good ol' reliable
People were starting to doubt whether or not Juan Mata was good enough to play for Manchester United.
Never blessed with the most speed, the midfielder had somehow gotten even slower with age. Considering how the team now likes to play with pace on the counter, it seemed Mata no longer had a role in the squad. Already 31-years-old, some were starting to think it was time to move on.
However, recent weeks have shown the diminutive Spaniard still has plenty to offer for the Red Devils.
He had been wasted out wide most of the time this season, but he finally got the chance to play in his preferred central attacking midfielder position against Norwich City. In a game United simply had to win, Mata put on a masterclass, leading them to victory on the afternoon.
He created United’s opening goal of the contest, cutting inside before playing a perfect pass towards the back post that was redirected into the back of the net by Marcus Rashford.
Mata would be just as instrumental in the third goal as well, as he came short for a corner and lofted a cross into the area. Anthony Martial rose highest to head home, giving Mata a second assist.
His impact went beyond the stat sheet as well. The Spainard was the one in charge of linking up the midfield to the front three. He controlled the tempo of the contest, either pushing forward or making the safe pass back when need be. Norwich might be the last placed team in the Premier League, but they still came nowhere near Mata.
Named the man of the match, he then started United’s next game versus Wolves in the FA Cup as a result. An overall dreadful showing from both teams, Mata was able to provide the moment of magic that broke the deadlock.
Recognizing space in behind, the midfielder sprinted forward in behind the defense. Martial found him with a through ball, but Mata still had a lot left to do.
Keeping it away from the trailing defenders, he made his way into the penalty area before deftly chipping the onrushing goalkeeper, giving the Red Devils the lead and ultimately helping them book their spot into the next round of the tournament.
Onwards to Juanfield
Now, United face their toughest test of the season, as they have to travel to Anfield to take on league leaders and bitter rivals Liverpool. No one’s given them much hope of pulling off the upset, but the same was being said before the Red Devils got a point at Old Trafford. If they want any chance of repeating that success, than Mata could be key.
He’s already got experience in this very same fixture. Mata’s best game in a United kit arguably came at Anfield, as his brace helped Louis Van Gaal’s side pick up all three points away to Liverpool in 2015. His scissor kick volley to score the second goal was especially memorable, with United fans dubbing the stadium “Juanfield” following his spectacular performance.
Mata could be the difference this weekend as well. He may lack the speed to help the Red Devils counter, but he makes up for it with his technical ability on the ball that could be useful against the high press, dribbling past defenders or spraying long passes in behind.
Mata is still ageing, of course, and this rich run of form won’t last forever. However, if rumors and reports are to be believed, then a replacement could finally be coming, as Portuguese attacking midfielder Bruno Fernandes seems to be closing in on a move to Old Trafford. If that transfer does come to fruition, Mata could still be of use, just off the field this time.
Acclimating to the Premier League is incredibly tough, with many players failing to make the jump. Mata has done it though, and knows exactly what it takes to make it in this country. If Fernandes does come, then the Spainard could serve as a mentor of sorts, teaching the younger attacking midfielder important lessons so he can shine in England’s first division.
Earlier reports of Juan Mata’s demise had been greatly exaggerated, and the diminutive Spainard has shown that in recent weeks with his impressive performances, proving that he’s still got a lot left to offer at Old Trafford.