If Jose Mourinho has changed tact, then this is nowhere more apparent than in his handling of Juan Mata.
When the Portuguese arrived at Manchester United in the summer, many fans and critics assumed the Spanish playmaker would swiftly be on his way — that the former would simply displace the latter, as he had done in his second spell at Chelsea.
Then, with Mata as the club’s two-time player of the year, Mourinho had behaved with a ruthlessness remarkable even by his own standards. Having decided that Mata was not defensively robust enough for the No.10 role, he quickly arranged for his sale in January 2014, preferring the then-emerging Oscar. Tactically, it seemed an odd choice — after all, no-one ever dropped Manchester City’s David Silva for failing to track back — but Mourinho was vindicated, with Oscar pivotal as Chelsea won the Premier League title a year later.
These events seemed to have confirmed that Mata was simply not Mourinho’s type of player. Indeed, the manager has found himself at odds with creative players whom other coaches have readily accommodated in their teams. Most notably, when at he was at Chelsea, he failed to find much room for Juan Cuadrado, Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne. Yet it is testament to Mourinho and to Mata that the player is now flourishing at Old Trafford.
There are a range of possible reasons for Mata’s fine form so far, which has seen him score twice in six Premier League games and regularly feature as one of his side’s best players. One is simply that he has more speed around him. Mata is often compared to Silva, but one key difference is that Silva has a deceptive turn of pace, while Mata has never been particularly quick.
Yet with the emergence of Marcus Rashford and accompanied by Anthony Martial, Mata has an excellent outlet for many of his more ambitious passes. He is now also much more robust in the challenge than he was when first joined the club. In his first full season, he won 41 percent of all duels against his opponent and this season, that figure stands at 57 percent. He is also currently completing 80 percent of all his dribbles, compared to 57 percent in that first season. Somewhere along the line, Mata has become more aggressive, more competitive in both defence and attack. This development will particularly have pleased Mourinho, who famously demands a high intensity from his players.
Mata’s goal against Leicester City, in his team’s 4-1 evisceration of the Premier League champions, showed him at his best. He began the move and then weaved the play together, dropping into pockets of space and materialising in the area faster than his legs seemed they should allow, he finished with style. It was a movement in the style of Andres Iniesta, the man to whom Mata will forever be an understudy at international level.
Looking at what Mata has won, and at how decisive he has been in major tournaments, it seems strange that he should still be regularly doubted. After all, he has accumulated 40 caps for Spain (with an impressive haul of 10 goals), during the greatest generation that any country is likely to produce for some time.
He has won the Champions League, supplying the corner for Didier Drogba’s equaliser in the 2012 final against Bayern Munich, and has been on the fringes as Spain claimed the European Championship and the World Cup. In fact, the only glaring absentee from his CV is a league winners’ medal, and this may be his greatest challenge left — to be at the helm of a championship-winning side.
Much of United’s best play this season has gone through him, which makes for an intriguing selection dilemma when Henrikh Mkhitaryan reaches full fitness. Mkhitaryan is far better suited to the flank than Mata, and so he may find himself deployed there for much of the remainder of the campaign.
An attack where he and either Martial or Rashford roam either side of Mata, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic ahead of them all, has the potency to overwhelm any defence. It is to Mata’s credit that, after months of uncertainty this summer, he has made himself one of the most sure-footed members of Mourinho’s starting lineup.
Perhaps, after all, it wasn’t Mourinho who changed. Maybe it is Mata, who, approaching his peak at the age of 28 and more eager than ever for another defining moment in his career, is taking more of a leadership role than ever before.
In a league which features some of the world’s outstanding playmakers, this is as good a season as any in which Mata can make a conclusive statement of his own brilliance.