Juan Mata: Manchester United's Unsung Hero Is Quietly Having A Vintage Season


David Moyes lasted 10 months as Manchester United manager. Not much time for legacy building, and there's very little been done by the players he left behind, or the club, to make his memory linger.

He's the George Lazenby of United managers - a fleeting cameo in the most iconic of roles. Most concerned with Moyes' hiring probably wish they could erase his reign from the record books altogether, daydreaming of the moment Ferguson handed over to Van Gaal instead.

But one man feels differently. Juan Mata, lest we forget, was a Moyes signing in January 2014 and has turned out to be a rather inspired one. As an awkward silence fell in the wake of Moyes' departure last April, the Spaniard took a stand.

After wishing him well for the future, Mata said of Moyes, "I thank him for his continuous interest in me and his importance during my transfer to become a Manchester United player."

Mata's importance to United cannot be underestimated. Bright young things Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial are deserving of their time in the spotlight, and the media will never tire of debating Wayne Rooney's latest crisis of form, but the biggest story driving Van Gaal's attacking effort this season is Mata.

With three goals and three assists in seven Premier League appearances, Mata has played a role in half his team's goals. He's also one of only three United players to start all 11 games this season, the other two being the defensive combination of Daley Blind and Chris Smalling.

I'm happier than most, as he's in my fantasy team as captain and scoring points for fun. I don't bring that up to boast - my team is decidedly average as a unit - but to highlight the fact that it wasn't even certain Mata would make Van Gaal's first-choice XI this season at the dawn of the campaign.

Here we are seven games in and the Spaniard is arguably a safer bet to start than the club's record scorer Rooney and the world's most expensive teenager Martial. He's been so good, so consistently this season, that you almost wonder if Jose Mourinho might allow himself a tinge of regret. Imagine that.

Mourinho let Mata go of course, the story told that he wasn't one for racking up the hard yards and therefore a luxury Chelsea had no use for. Moyes made his move and Mata was suitably flattered, and suitably desperate to escape the Mourinho workhouse, that he left for a club in the grips of an almighty post-Ferguson hangover.

Less than three months later, the manager who wanted Mata was gone. Moyes was sacked and Mata would now have to win over Van Gaal. The 2014-15 season produced some fine performances and a defining brace in United's 2-1 win at Anfield in March, but it was never clear whether Mata was for the keeping or not.

Champions League football was secured, but it was a dangerous summer to be an attacking player at Old Trafford. Robin van Persie, Javier Hernandez, Angel Di Maria and Nani all saw their demise, yet Mata survived the cull and got the call to start United's opener against Spurs.

Maybe the Liverpool performance was it for Van Gaal and Mata - a shared moment of glory that tied their paths together and set a course for the future. He called that win "one of the most important moments of my career" and it was conjured by one man more than any other.

This season we've seen Mata trusted like never before at United. He's expressing himself, linking play with confidence and now has the added thrust of Memphis and Martial to play with. Surrounding a player like Mata with pace is the secret to his success - see David Silva and Sergio Aguero as the perfect example.

What's more, Mata is working like the dog Mourinho couldn't train him to be. In United's Champions League loss against PSV Eindhoven, Mata covered 12,070 metres, more than 700m further than any of his team-mates that night.

When you compare that number to the Champions League metres covered by Chelsea's Willian, the poster child for perpetual pressing in Mourinho's machine, a surprising stat comes up. Mata covered more ground in 90 minutes than Willian has in 113 (Chelsea have played twice).

Those may be freak numbers, but I'd like to think they tell a story. Maybe all those minutes on the pitch have got Mata fitter than ever before? Or maybe he's just found a cause he believes in enough to put in the extra graft? Whatever Mata's motivation, he's promising to deliver a vintage season and could ultimately prove United's most influential player. 

While Martial, Memphis and Rooney dominate the media coverage, Mata is quietly putting on a masterclass and having the time of his life doing it. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

 

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