Why hasn't Juan Mata been able to take long-awaited number 10 chance?

Since Juan Mata came to Manchester United with David Moyes swimming against the tide during his mercifully brief reign, he has struggled to get a run of games in his best position.

Louis van Gaal generally fielded him from the right hand side tucking in, but Mata has always been more comfortable in a more central role.

Much was made of his reunion with Jose Mourinho, and while Mata was never going to fit the Portuguese’s blueprint of what a winger should be, he persisted playing him from the right.

Mata has waited years for the opportunity Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is currently granting him; a run of matches as Manchester United’s central playmaker in the number ten role.

So why has he proved utterly incapable of taking it? We’ve taken a closer look.


A lack of speed?

Photo by Alex Dodd – CameraSport via Getty Images

Mata has never been the quickest, relying on a speed of thought to elude defenders and it is that which has made him a vaguely plausible wide option at various times despite patently not having the engine.

Playing in the number ten role should minimise those concerns, but Mata looks slower than ever.

He is 31 now and showing his age. Games simply pass Mata by and if a pass is not perfectly into his path, he lacks the ability to get it under his spell.

Much like Nemanja Matic, the suspicion persists that Mata is simply yesterday’s man, a slow player only getting slower.

Or something deeper?

Photo by James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images

Perhaps a bigger worry is that Mata’s technical ability is absolutely nowhere near the level it was earlier in his career.

The Spaniard should be good enough on the ball to operate without relying on his pace at his age, picking passes and using his touch to bend the game to his will.

He should still be good enough to boss games, even if that means moving to the back of midfield as he goes deeper into his thirties.

Instead, he is struggling to bring the ball under his control. Against Astana in the Europa League last month, his technical level was so poor, facing a side whom he should have had far too much class for.

Mata has always come across as the ultimate professional, so it is unlikely that a poor attitude to training or games has seeped in to bring about this drop.

The Spaniard of course would look better with more dynamic runs being made for him to pick out, but there aren’t the moments of class in his control, delivery or dead ball situations to make up for his lack of speed.

He has waited years for the chance to pull the strings for United and now the chance is here, he is unable to take it.

Perhaps he was never good enough and that’s why van Gaal and Mourinho seldom fielded him as the number ten.

One of the best professionals in the Premier League, a player who used to score and set up goals for fun at his best now cannot influence a game against even the most run of the mill opponents.

During a spell when United could use his experience and class more than ever, it’s not crystal clear exactly why he’s so powerless.

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Sam Preston is an NCTJ gold standard news and sports journalist who studied with the Press Association. He also has a 2:1 law with French law degree from the University of Birmingham, which included a year studying at Bordeaux Montaigne University. He is an FA Level 1 football coach who appeared on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show in 2018 and has also written digital football content and match-day programme pieces for Colchester United, Mansfield Town and Stockport County.