This is a properly sad article to write, so all readers have been warned.
I remember the day when David Moyes’ Manchester United signed off on signing Juan Mata in January 2014, and I (like many fans) was over the moon with this deal.
Not only because we plucked him from Chelsea, but because he was a top, top player.
During his Valencia days, and coming into his brighter spells in London Blue, you’d struggle to think of a player more cultured and delicate in world football working between the lines at the upper echelon of the game.
David Silva, would be his closest comparison. And the two were level for some time.
Blessed with an incredible technique to caress the ball, lay it off to a colleague, claim it back and set the team on their way, they were the players you couldn’t take your eye off.
If you did as a fan, you’d miss a likely spark of brilliance in a match.
If you did as an opponent, you might as well be 1-0 down already.
For whatever reason, Juan Mata fell out of favour at Chelsea.
Thereafter, he waltzed into the welcoming arms of a direction-less Manchester United squad after an unexpected big-money January move materialised toward the end of the window.
From that point on, the problem was clear.
Juan Mata falls into that category of playmaker where there needs to be a system built around him in order to make the most out of his qualities.
He’s not the kind of guy to fit into a rigid 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 structure.
Instead, he’s of an ilk like Bergkamp, Silva or Fabregas.
Where he needs to be given free reigns in behind the striker to decide when to feed them or to keep things moving for the good of the team.
Importantly, the defensive stuff needs to be done by somebody else.
Well, would you purchase a Rolls Royce Phantom to take you through the racing line of a dirt-based rally track? No. You need that Lancia putting in the ground work.
Shout out to the O-G Top Gear lads for putting me onto Lancia, btw. Top brand.
Unfortunately, Manchester United were ill-equipped to deal with Juan Mata.
By that, I mean that they were so poorly arranged in the backroom, that not a single person in the recruitment department could recognise what he needed.
We needed those Lancias. Those combative defensive presences.
But they never got them.
Instead, they’d either buy players who they’d try and mould into those positions, get them beyond their prime years or completely omit the position altogether.
Ander Herrera. Fred. Nemanja Matic. Bastian Schweinsteiger.
I work in recruitment, so I have something to say on this. Everyday, we face the battle of going for talent in an increasingly crowded market. But when we find that diamond we’re looking for, it still needs to come down to whether that person is a good-enough fit for your needs and with the rest of the incumbent team.
If they don’t get on well, they won’t get the job – regardless of their CV.
Manchester United haven’t understood that for nearly a decade.
And players like Juan Mata have been the fall guys for that.
As he played his last match for Manchester United at Old Trafford in a commanding 3-0 win over Brentford, his departure was tinged with respect and regret in equal measure.
Throughout his time there, Juan Mata became a beloved figure at the club.
Never disrepsecting the hierarchy and performing to his best when called upon.
But when he did play, he was usually that cultured guy playing in a position where he had to sacrifice himself for the team.
Only sporadically did we see him at his sparkling best in a United shirt, while being deployed in a role where the manager fully understood and appreciated what he’d be able to bring to the club.
In my opinion, the club failed Juan Mata in ways that no elite club should ever do.
He’s a cult hero, but should have been a legend.