‘When Juan Mata starts, Manchester United invariably win. Simple really.’
That was the opening line to one of many fawning pieces last week – this one on Mail Online – after Mata had scored against Manchester City in the League Cup. ‘Invariably’ means ‘without exception’ so it was utterly the wrong word to use for a record of seven wins from nine starts, but the sentiment was clear: Whatever is going wrong at Manchester United is not the fault of Juan Mata.
While Ander Herrera has come under some criticism from those outside Old Trafford for – as one Mailboxer presciently put it this week – ‘being a bit of a b***ard’, you would struggle to find a single person who thinks ill of Mata. Anodyne blogs, childlike enthusiasm, a slowness we can all appreciate and a pureness of touch and vision combine to give him a rare likeability factor. ‘Poor bugger’ was the widespread reaction to Jose Mourinho’s appointment; after all, this was the one man who didn’t like him.
“Juan at Chelsea in my project was one player, and Juan in my project at Man United is another thing,” explained Mourinho, suggesting that the Blues’ ‘defensive block’ meant that the Spaniard’s lack of pace was an issue. With Manchester United looking to play a different style of football, Mata’s skill set was valuable once again.
Or at least it was until Mourinho wanted United to be a little more Chelsea; so against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea themselves, Mata started on the bench as the United manager opted for pace and application over invention. Mata was always going to start against Burnley, with United expecting almost total domination of the ball, and he was undoubtedly the best player on the pitch, linking beautifully with Zlatan Ibrahimovic as Burnley were carved open time and again.
Mata’s statistics were astonishing – 100% pass completion rate, eight chances created, four of seven shots on target and another against the post, dispossessed just once – and yet who did Mourinho haul off when United were reduced to ten men? The game’s best player, of course. United’s domination with 11 men was so complete that the appropriate response would have been ‘keep on keeping on’, but instead, Mourinho took off his most potent attacker and made United that little bit more Chelsea again. Instinct kicked in and even against limited opposition, going down to ten men meant a sacrifice of the game’s slowest player.
United down to ten men at home with game goalless with 18 mins to go and he takes off the player who has been orchestrating it, Mata. Odd
— James Ducker (@TelegraphDucker) October 29, 2016
It was a day of baffling decisions from Mourinho, who once again gave Zlatan Ibrahimovic yet another start and 90 frustrating minutes; he responded with a litany of missed chances. Of United’s 37 attempts on goal, the Swede had 12 and hit the target only four times. Perhaps odder was his continued insistence on leaving Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the stands. The campaign for his inclusion has a hashtag and everything, but #stubbornJose stuck to his guns. His stance looks more and more bizarre every week.
That’s now six points from the last 21 for United in the Premier League and that record puts them embarrassingly below Watford in the table. The pressure on Mourinho is such that he spent the second half in the stands after needlessly losing his temper with the officials – an utterly ridiculous thing to do at home to Burnley in a game they were utterly dominating.
“Some clubs have all the time they want, some managers have all the time they want,” he said before the game. “And some other clubs you want immediately success and with some other managers it’s exactly the same. But that’s Man United and that’s Jose Mourinho. No problem.”
Except there really is a problem, Jose. Ask Juan Mata, ask Luke Shaw, ask Michael Carrick, ask Morgan Schneiderlin, ask Bastian Schweinsteiger, ask Anthony Martial and ask thousands upon thousands of Manchester United fans who are starting to wonder if the emperor stripped off about 18 months ago.