Masterful Juan Mata has convinced Louis van Gaal of his class … now to outwit Arsenal

Last Friday afternoon at Manchester United’s Carrington training ground. The players arrive late, passing a gaggle of selfie hunters lining the farm tracks on the lush fields west of Manchester, before doing afternoon training. The squad train, then eat together in the canteen before travelling by coach to the team hotel in Salford. Receptionist Kath Phipps, in the job over 45 years, watches them come and go. She has the ability to raise a smile from visitors even in the darkest hours, but her mood-lifting disposition isn’t necessary today for the results have been good and sun is shining as Manchester enjoys an Indian summer.
Before their meal, for which no player dares to be a minute late for fear of agitating their manager, Andreas Pereira, who’d starred in a midweek win against Ipswich Town, sits on a sofa with another young player Jesse Lingaard. Together with Daley Blind, they’re picking up new mobile phones from a representative who knows that a Manchester United footballer buying a phone in an actual store could be a trying experience. Ryan Giggs went to the Trafford Centre once, but never again, though that doesn’t stop the newer, less familiar players living relatively normal lives.
Though other United players seldom venture out from their Cheshire boltholes, Blind and Juan Mata (who, along with Chris Smalling, have started all 12 United games this season) are regulars around the city centre. Mata likes the quirky bars and live music venues of the Northern Quarter and the museums. Hardly your typical footballer fare; the Asturian is reading a book on typography. He also speaks four languages if you include the Asturian dialect.
I spoke to Mata at Carrington. He’s pleased with the season so far, both from a personal and team perspective. No United player has scored more than his three league goals, the latest against Sunderland. No player comes close to the 27-year-old’s six assists, the fifth coming to set up Memphis Depay’s first league goal against the winless Mackems, the sixth a glorious, looping, flick with his heel to set up Smalling to put United 2-1 up against Wolfsburg. Mata had equalised against the Germans after taking a penalty which he’d won.
Mata isn’t even being used in his preferred central role, but he’s still hugely effective. He arrived at a club where, despite the façade of all being well, the reality was that it was undergoing massive change – of managers, of players, of culture. Past employees firmly believe United is not what it once was, that something has been lost. Current decision makers believe they’re making progress and that changes were necessary. They don’t expect United to be making six or seven new signings each summer – more like the two or three of yore – but when a new manager comes in he wants to bring in his own players.
Despite only arriving relatively recently for a then club record £37.1 million transfer from Chelsea in January 2014, even Mata’s future was questioned last season. He’d been signed by David Moyes and Ed Woodward who wanted to acquire a big name after a poor 2013 transfer window. Word was that he wasn’t a Van Gaal man, that his new manager wasn’t entirely convinced. If he wasn’t then, he is now.
Mata’s stats are impressive. He’s either assisted or scored 45 per cent of all United’s goals this season. No midfielder in England’s top flight has a higher number of goals and assists than the Spaniard’s 74 in the past five seasons. He’s United’s most creative player, one who has made a chance every 34 minutes this season. Herrera (63 mins) and Young (67 mins) are next.
At five foot seven and 64 kilograms, Mata knows that his biggest weakness is his physical strength. I asked him about this in Santa Clara pre-season.
“I try to think a lot on the pitch,” he said. “It makes up for my lack of physical strength. I need to be in positions where I can receive the ball and play quicker so I always try to be in positions where I can receive the ball and play quicker.”
Mata was first inspired when he grew up watching his dad’s videos of Maradona, a man who would become his hero.Ryan Giggs and Juan Mata celebrate after the game – Reuters
He’s a firm favourite among United fans too. Fans sing about him being the best player in the league (and he told me he’d love to stand with them at an away game), they love his graceful poise, his lively left foot and while playing wide isn’t where he’d prefer to be, he drifts inside and damages opponents in every game. Van Gaal talked of some of his players being fatigued by so many matches, but Mata appears indefatigable. He only failed to start nine Valencia league games in three years before his 2011 move to Chelsea. At Stamford Bridge, he played an incredible 54 times in his first season and 64 times in his second, when he also weighed in with 20 goals for the European champions. His next game is a tough one, away at Arsenal on Sunday.
Under Van Gaal, United haven’t picked up enough points away from home, winning just 8 of 22 games. His first away win was a surprise, against Arsenal last November, when United’s injury- hit five-man defence was pounded, butDavid de Gea was fantastic and, not for the first time at the Emirates, United counter attacked to win.
Arsenal may have knocked United out of the FA Cup last season at Old Trafford, but they’ve not beaten United in the league post that 8-2 mauling at Old Trafford in August 2011. Including the 8-2, that’s eight matches with three draws and five defeats for Arsenal. No team has a better recent record against Arsenal than Manchester United.
Mata didn’t start at the Emirates last year in a game where Michael Carrick andMarouane Fellaini excelled in United’s midfield behind Angel di Maria, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney in front. Two of those have left, the other is badly out of form. It would be a major surprise if Mata, who scored some superb goals for Chelsea against Arsenal, was dropped for the first time this season, as it would be if he didn’t continue to dazzle for Manchester United. And what a statement it would be if United could win again on Sunday.

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