The transfer window prior to the 2015-16 season has been an unusually fruitful one for Manchester United fans. A club that professes to be the biggest in the world has rarely gone about addressing its weaknesses with such undoubted pedigree. The likes of Depay, Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin and Darmian are the calibre of player that the fans have always deserved.
And yet amidst the pleasant surprise at Louis van Gaal and Ed Woodward working so well in identifying and securing genuine talent, a curious after-thought has been repeatedly apparent in fan comments when discussing new midfielders and forwards – how will it affect Juan Mata?
It’s a strangely empathetic and specific concern when contemplating what exciting new recruits may bring to the mix. After all this isn’t a youth player who has worked his way through the ranks of the club, nor is he a long- serving veteran who has given the side years of service.
The object of fan adulation is a 27-year-old Spaniard who’s barely been at the club for 18 months. Prior to joining he was playing for a rival. That they’ve grown to love him to the point of fearing for his future as the quality of the squad improves is a testament to both the player and the man.
Mata is that rare breed of humble playmaker. So often the creativity that such players are blessed with goes hand in hand with a prima donna disposition. It’s not perceived as vulgar, nor do teammates and fans take exception to a level of self-obsessed peacocking. It’s accepted and often indulged.
Mata is different; a player who name literally translates to ‘Johnny Kills’ is far from the flamboyant cock rocker front-man. Instead he is personable, self-effacing and utterly professional. The diminutive Iberian has the demeanour of a substitute full-back rather than a sublimely gifted creator.
In an era of egotistical frauds, Mata is just a sweet, nice lad. He’s as much a credit to his parents as he is Real Madrid’s La Fábrica. Whereas other far lesser lights get themselves embroiled in sex scandals, racism cases and front-page splashes, Mata is visiting the Whitworth Art Gallery.
He doesn’t necessarily look like the 21st century footballer either. Quite apart from the distinct lack of shaped eyebrows, bottle tan and face-swallowing Beats headphones, the Spaniard is small and hardly a waxed Adonis in the current mould. He is not especially fast, powerful or strong.
What he does have is a beautiful mind and a wand of a left foot. He has adapted to Manchester United and more recently the ‘philosophy’, showing Van Gaal and the fans that a lack of personal speed needn’t slow down the tempo of the team. Very much the contrary in fact.
In a side that often veered worryingly towards the more direct and physical aspects of the game, Mata was and is a gem of inspiration and ingenuity. His play is economical without being purely functional; inventive sans indulgence. Most importantly, he is fundamentally a team player.
What he does is pass and probe in the tiki-taka style, whilst being more than able to beat his man or play the killer ball when the opportunity arises. Fears that he’ll inevitably be ousted from the team by high-profile signings ignore the fact that he brings others into play and makes them better.
The manager will greatly appreciate this attribute. A forward line won’t thrive if replete purely in Memphis Depays or Wayne Rooneys; alpha male talents require support from their more magnanimous teammates. Mata has the skills and temperament to oil the wheels and feed the egos.
Mata can also find the net in a side not overly prolific in end-product. In summary he should be okay. Not that it will assuage his adoring legion, whose fondness has as much to do with the player’s geniality as his genius. Sometimes a good man doing a good job is all it takes to be loved by millions.
This article was taken from the RoM 2015-16 season preview. All profits go to Trafford Macmillan.