When Jose Mourinho was confirmed manager of Manchester United, there were claims that Juan Mata might as well start packing his bags.
During the manager’s second stint at Chelsea, he sold Mata, who had been voted as player of the season by the fans for the previous two consecutive seasons, within months of his appointment.
Mata was regularly starting on the bench and wasn’t getting enough playing time. When United made an offer in January, Mata was on the next helicopter to Carrington and was reunited with his compatriot David de Gea. The addition of Ander Herrera that summer, the final piece of the Three Amigos puzzle, only added to his happiness at United.
Yet it was believed Mourinho’s arrival at Old Trafford spelled the end of the Spaniard’s career. He had just scored in the FA Cup final days earlier, as United beat Crystal Palace 2-1, but reports suggested he would be surplus to requirements under Mourinho.
In United’s first game of the next season, the Community Shield victory over Leicester, Mata was on the bench. He did make an appearance though, only to be substituted off in the dying moments of the game.
Mourinho explained this decision by pointing out that United needed some height to see the game out, with Leicester pumping balls in to the box that Mata was no use at defending.
Former Liverpool midfielder Danny Murphy, who was working as a pundit, insisted Mourinho was letting Mata know it was time for him to find a new club.
“You don’t do that unless you are trying to send a message,” he claimed. “They have a lot of history at Chelsea and he has embarrassed him in front of his supporters and his family. He is basically saying to him you are not important and he has done it publicly. I can’t see him still being at the club at the end of August.”
By the end of the season, Mata had played in over 40 games, suggesting that maybe Murphy and others had jumped the gun.
Now, in Mourinho’s second season, only five players have started more games than the Spaniard. Far from being the first player out of the door, Mata has become very much a part of the manager’s plans.
There’s no feeling of being singled out by Mourinho now, as Mata believes that everything the manager says and does is to protect the club.
“He tries to protect the group and keep us together,” he told ESPN. “He tries to defend Manchester United as much as he can. As a player, we get the feeling that he goes to the press conference to protect the club, the team and the players if needed.”
Mourinho is very skilled in developing a siege mentality and it appears this is what he is doing at United. He wants the players to fight for each other and be aware that he is fighting for them. Mata is certainly clued up in this regard.
Yet while there have been no problems between the player and manager, it doesn’t necessarily mean Mata’s long-term future is still at the club.
His contract is set to expire in the summer but reports suggest United will almost certainly trigger the one-season extension clause. Mata will be keen to win as much as he possibly can in the time he left playing for the serial winner, Mourinho.
In less than four years at United, he’s won the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Europa League, and at Chelsea he won the Champions League too, yet the Premier League has eluded him thus far.
“I would love to win the Premier League,” Mata continued. “I have been here for seven years and never won it. But I cannot complain. I have been in finals, I have won trophies and I am more than happy with that.
“Since I came to England we won the FA Cup, League Cup, Community Shield so the only one is the Premier League. Hopefully we can do it this year. It would be amazing for the club and for myself personally and we will try our best to do it.”
Mata will likely have another season at United after this one, so it isn’t a case of now or never, but he will be aware that time is running out if he is to ever win the league in England. He will turn 30 at the end of this season and United will only continue to strengthen in the summer. There are plenty of people who are desperate to see the Premier League trophy return to Old Trafford, but not many who will be keener than Mata.