Unfashionable Juan Mata Can Be Playmaker Man Utd Need to Gel Team of All-Stars

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur – Premier League | Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may not be popular – nor a tactical genius, but fair play, the bloke is brave.

With the pressure well and truly stacked on the under-fire Norwegian boss, Solskjaer went big and selected the whackiest, most easily-criticised starting lineup in his Old Trafford tenure. Out went the blabbermouth Paul Pogba, while fan favourite Mason Greenwood was nowhere to be seen. Not even in the squad.

Anthony Martial’s suspension narrowed his choices even further, and it all looked pretty bleak. However, this perfect storm in a teacup allowed one forgotten man to make a surprise return to the Premier League fold.

Juan bloody Mata.

The Spaniard is all too regularly written off as being miles off the pace of the top-flight now, with fans cursing his shot legs, lack of speed across the ground and inability to scrap it out in the world’s most physical division.

What they forget though, is that he has been living with those deficiencies for years now, and has adapted his game to highlight his strengths. Those strengths just happen to be exactly what Man Utd need.

Not that it’s very appealing to see the former Chelsea man’s name on the teamsheet. “The guy can’t run fast, so he’s clearly not a good footballer!” The words probably muttered by somebody, somewhere (definitely on Twitter).

Let’s be honest, he doesn’t stand a chance in the pre-match buildup when he is taking the role of an incredibly expensive Pogba, or diamond in the rough Greenwood. Supporters love seeing a player take on an opponent, skinning him alive and leaving him coughing and spluttering in the dust.

But you don’t need three of those players.

Marcus Rashford is one of the best in the business at burning in behind a defence, while Martial and Greenwood both possess very similar qualities. Too similar, in fact. Supporters would almost always prefer to see a speedy lineup of a rapid trident than the guile and invention of a slower, more unorthodox footballer.

Juan Mata, Callum WilsonJuan Mata, Callum Wilson
Tekkers | Pool/Getty Images

But around the world, some of us are beginning to see it all slightly differently. The English public have finally woken up to the magic of Jack Grealish, and they crave the moments of ingenuity that he can provide at the drop of a hat for the Three Lions, ahead of Jadon Sancho or Raheem Sterling.

Mata is a tougher sell. He’s older, not English, and stands as a reminder of Man Utd’s barren years without a Premier League trophy.

Many Red Devils would certainly have hoped to have moved on from the diminutive star by now. After all, the current crop of youngsters have been bedded in to replace him, not to compete with him. Yet, here we are.

Just when he seems to be entirely out of the picture, Mata finds his way back. It makes sense, too. Newcastle are a team that play the deepest, most defensive football in the top flight, and the chances of running into acres of space behind the backline are zero.

Steve Bruce sets his side up to frustrate with a low block, meaning any pace becomes irrelevant against 11 men penned into their own penalty area. What a game like this requires is someone who thinks on a different wave to everyone else. A player who can cut teams open with a surprise pass, or whose delivery and final ball is so accurate that his teammate need only a split second to latch on and apply the finish.

What a game like this required was Jonny Mata.

The Spaniard was involved throughout, laying on an assist for Bruno Fernandes, before the offside flag robbed him of his delight. Mata was not to be denied on this night though. He dragged Man Utd level with a perfect corner which attacked Harry Maguire’s head, cancelling out Luke Shaw’s nightmare own goal.

From that moment on, he grew into the game. The 32-year-old caused Jamal Lewis so many problems on the right flank, running behind and then dropping deep, confusing the full-back with his crafty movement. The experienced showed, as he created endless pockets of space for himself in those wide areas, and then looked to move infield or cut killer balls behind the defence.

He could have got another assist with a gorgeous defence-splitter through to Rashford, but the forward’s touch let him down. Not something that happens to Mata too often, funnily enough.

Inevitably, he got his rewards in the buildup to the second – and crucial goal. He received the ball in the middle of the park, and in the blink of an eye he whipped a stunning pass around the corner to Rashford, who played in Fernandes, and he did the rest.

It was a brilliant, brilliant team move, and one that would never have been executed, had the usual suspects been doing their classic trick of speeding head down behind their marker. Man Utd got their win in the end, and a flattering 4-1 scoreline papers over the cracks somewhat.

But Solskjaer deserves credit for taking a risk in his lineup selection, and his players deserve equal merits for repaying their coach’s faith.

Run away from Mata all you want lads – but he’ll always catch you up, no matter how slow he is.