After playing for Chelsea, expectations were high when Juan Mata completed his £ 37.1million transfer to Manchester United in January 2014.
During his two and a half years at Stamford Bridge, Mata has established himself as the Premier League’s most creative force and twice won Chelsea’s Player of the Year award. The Spain international was also instrumental in their double success in 2011-12, recording assists for Ramires in the FA Cup final and then Didier Drogba in the Champions League final.
Despite his success and popularity, he immediately found himself on the outskirts of the first team following José Mourinho’s return to Chelsea in 2013.
United have always sought to poach players from their domestic rivals and managed to take advantage of the situation, breaking their transfer records to secure the deal. The signing was seen as a coup for United, who were in the midst of a disastrous season under David Moyes and held seventh in the Premier League table.
After seeing Mata score a brilliant volley and curling free kick against them, the Red Devils already had first-hand experience of his talents.
If United fans weren’t excited enough, he then made a grand entrance at Carrington by helicopter while wearing an immaculate clutch bag. James Bond, eat your heart.
– Football B / R (@brfootball) January 25, 2014
“I never thought we would get this opportunity, I wasn’t sure Chelsea would ever sell it to us,” Moyes said after signing was completed. “Luckily we got there and I’m so glad he’s here.”
United had recruited a world-class footballer who was on the verge of bringing the club back to its former glory, except it didn’t quite work out that way.
Despite already having Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa in the Old Trafford books, Moyes believed that another number 10 would be the answer to their problems.
Unsurprisingly, this was not the case.
Like a square peg in a round hole, Mata was sent back to the right wing and United continued to struggle in “a number of areas including passing, creating chances and defending” under Moyes.
While the midfielder gave United a first boost, his arrival was not enough to save the manager from sacking in April 2014.
“I always feel bad when a manager has to leave because it means you’re not doing well or getting results,” Mata told the Manchester United Podcast in 2020. “So it’s not a nice feeling. So unfortunately he had to leave. But of course I am very grateful to him.
In truth, Moyes was on borrowed time even before the helicopter’s rotor blades stopped spinning, but Mata at least proved more useful to his successors at Old Trafford.
He eventually became a favorite under Louis van Gaal, playing a key role in wins over Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City towards the end of the 2014-15 season.
Mata scored both of United’s goals in their 2-1 win at Anfield in March 2015, including a spectacular bicycle kick that secured him status as an eternal cult hero among their supporters.
– Planet Football (@planetfutebol) March 22, 2021
“I guess it’s hard, if you score at Anfield, for United fans to forget that,” Mata told Standard Sport in 2020. “It was a very special day for all of us, for me personally .
“Scoring two goals at Anfield will always be very special and will always be remembered, as fans remember Diego Forlan’s or John O’Shea’s goal at Anfield.”
That brief period turned out to be the highlight of Van Gaal’s reign, but his football was often as enjoyable as watching the paint dry throughout 2015-16.
Alongside Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, Mata was one of the few players to offer entertainment and was a beacon of light amid the darkness at Old Trafford. Renowned for his art and cunning, the Spaniard loved to express himself while some of his teammates played like robots following their strict orders.
He showcased his unique innovation in a victory over Wolfsburg in September 2015, registering one of the best assists of all time in the Champions League. Most of the players took a few touches to control Bastian Schweinsteiger’s missed shot, but Mata had the awareness and the speed of thought to push the ball back into Chris Smalling’s path.
We must once again shine the spotlight on this decisive pass from Juan Mata against Wolfsburg
– ManUtdMindset (@ManUtdMindset) June 12, 2018
In the second leg in Germany, Mata was sadly replaced by Nick Powell as United sought an equalizer and was ultimately knocked out of the competition. From one extreme to the other, nothing summed up Mata’s mixed fortune at United like those two encounters against Wolfsburg.
In Van Gaal’s last game in charge, Mata again showed his worth by scoring the tying goal in their 2-1 win over Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final. While Jesse Lingard’s stunning overtime strike grabbed the headlines, Van Gaal’s tenure would have ended without a trophy without Mata’s 81st minute goal.
Alternate angle of Rooney’s brilliant run and Mata’s goal. Nice assist from Fellaini. pic.twitter.com/II6CPnHjrL
– United Digest (@UTDdigest) May 21, 2016
Although everyone assumed that Mourinho would do without the little Spaniard when he replaced Van Gaal in 2016, Mata became one of the few selected players who returned to Mourinho’s good books. He has become a completely different player than the one United bought from Chelsea in 2014, showing a willingness to defend and work hard for the team.
“Mata has adapted to the football I want to play. I knew from the start that he would be an important player,” Mourinho said in February 2017. “I think he feels this confidence in me, this confidence in the game that we want to try to play. So he’s happy. He’s happy on the pitch and you can see it the way he plays.
The attacking midfielder helped the Red Devils win two more trophies in 2016-17, starting with the League Cup and Europa League final victories. But he must still regret that Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford rather than Pep Guardiola, the man who breathed new life into his compatriot David Silva across Manchester.
Mata has since fallen lower in the pecking order following the arrival of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, starting just 14 Premier League games in the past two seasons.
During his time on the bench, it became easy to think of Juan Mata as the person rather than the footballer. After all, he is one of the friendliest characters in football due to his charitable work, weekly blogging, and professionalism. Buto Focusing only on that would be condescending. He’s much more than a good, honest pro with a pastoral role in the locker room.
Just look at this first touch FFS.
The first touch of Juan Mata is a thing of beauty. 😍 pic.twitter.com/rq8usVFRqc
– Tekkers (@TekkersMedia) January 15, 2020
He’s also reminded us of what he’s capable of in 2020-21, from the brilliant cameo appearance against West Ham to a cheeky blow after United’s victory at Aston Villa.
With his contract expiring at the end of the month, the 33-year-old now looks set to leave Old Trafford with a respectable record of 51 goals in 273 appearances in all competitions.
“He’s such a great professional, a very good player,” Solskjaer said in May 2021. “It’s hard for me not to play him more than I have. There have been circumstances that season, personal problems that made him less available, but he is still a high level player. “
For the cynical observer, Mata was a luxury signing for United, and he was unable to consistently regain the truly sensational form he had shown in west London.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been a successful signing, though, and his occasional sparkling moments have earned him every penny.
Through Nathan Egerton
More from Manchester United
Robin van Persie: Would I have joined Man Utd if I had known Fergie was retiring?
Juan Mata names his best teammates in Valencia, Chelsea and Man Utd
Can you name the six Spanish players to appear for Man Utd in the Premier League?
A tribute to Juan Sebastian Veron, the good man from Man Utd at the wrong time