The Spaniard was David Moyes’ creative gamble, but failed to secure a central role. Louis van Gaal then came in and played him as a narrow playmaker from the right, accounting for Marouane Fellaini’s lack of ball skills in the centre by bringing him in from wide.
And despite Jose Mourinho’s well-known preference for rapid, energetic wingers who work back constantly, he has kept Mata out wide; even though it’s blatantly obvious that he’s best as a number 10.
Finally, against his former club on Saturday, Mata was given the opportunity in the hole and he grabbed it with both hands.
Not forced to embark on long, lung-busting sprints back into full-back areas, he was able to focus his energy on dominating the centre of the park.
This was Mata’s second best performance in a red shirt; second only to that two-goal display at Anfield back in 2015.
He got United out of tight spots with his close control, marked Jorginho largely out of the game and epitomised United’s fighting spirit in the second half – he was exceptional.
That performance has to mean Mata is brought inside on a permanent basis. Of course United lack natural right-wing options, but Alexis Sanchez, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard are all better fits.
He just does not have the athleticism to play wide, but he can run a game from the centre of the pitch. He was a prolific creator and goalscorer in that role during his time at Stamford Bridge; a return to that could reinvigorate Mourinho’s attack.
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