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Juan Mata flourishing at Manchester United under Jose Mourinho

Juan Mata put Manchester United 1-0 up against Arsenal last Saturday and looked set to secure the three points for his team, before Olivier Giroud levelled the score in the final minute.  

As disappointed as the player might have been at the final whistle, he had enjoyed yet another impressive appearance and deserved more than the draw his team had to settle for.  

Mata has been one of United's best performing players this season, with Eric Bailly (before his injury), Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia challenging him for this title.  

His form this campaign has been hugely satisfying for large sections of the fan base that have loved Mata since the moment his helicopter arrived at Carrington almost three years ago. He wasn't only one of the best performing players in the Premier League, having been named Chelsea's fans' player of the season for the previous two seasons, but he was just an all-round nice guy.  

Mata spends his summers off backpacking around Europe. He studied at university. You can spot him in York or the Whitworth Art Gallery on the weekend. He spends time with disabled children after away games and reads up about the history of the opposition.

Still, as dreamy as the fans found him, there was the nagging reality that Mata wasn't performing as well as he did for Chelsea. He matched his league goal tally at Chelsea in 22 fewer games for United but, in terms of controlling the games and pulling the strings in attack, he was lacking.  

In Mata's defence, he spent his first 2½ years playing for David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, neither of whom had any idea how to get the best out of him. United's attacking football was more or less nonexistent with the Dutchman in charge, which clearly had an impact on how much Mata could contribute. The emphasis was on keeping possession, not being creative, so Mata's strengths were never going to be exposed.  

That said, Mata has still had his fair share of important moments. He scored twice at Anfield on that brilliant 2015 afternoon when United played Liverpool off the park and Steven Gerrard got sent off seconds after being substituted on.  

Mata ended his first campaign well, with six goals in the final six games of the season, before finding the back of the net in the 3-0 win over Liverpool and 4-2 win over Manchester City at Old Trafford the following season.  

Juan Mata
Juan Mata has been central to United's success this season, as United have lost just one game the Spaniard has started.

However, with the Spaniard only having shown glimpses of what he was capable of, it appeared as though his time at the club was set to come to an end when Jose Mourinho was appointed as manager. At Chelsea, Mata had been sold just a few months into Mourinho's second tenure at the club, having failed to hold down a place in the starting lineup.  

These rumours weren't helped by the events of the Community Shield victory over Leicester, when Mata suffered the unfortunate circumstance of being a substitute to be substituted off.  

It was clear Mourinho's decision was a tactical one, taking off the smallest player on the field, leaving the giant Marouane Fellaini and Zlatan Ibrahimovic on to defend. One of the players who had been substituted on was going to have to be taken off, so Mourinho went for the one with the least physical presence and height, as Leicester started booting the ball in to the box.  

However, for those keen to invent a feud between the player and manager, Mata was doomed. Danny Murphy, one of the pundits on the BBC following the Community Shield, insisted the substitution was a clear sign that Mourinho wanted rid . "I can't see him still being at the club at the end of August," was Murphy's assessment.  

Mata has, as the old cliché goes, let his feet do the talking, and has gone from strength to strength playing for Mourinho this season. The manager himself has acknowledged that he needs the Spaniard more at United than he did at Chelsea, which is understandable given how different the two squads and their style of football are.  

Gary Neville recently acknowledged the difference Mata makes to United and how his relationship with Mourinho looks stronger than ever.  

Statistics published this week show that Mata has been the best performing playmaker in the Premier League in his time at Chelsea and United. In games against the top six, Mata has 13 goals and 10 assists from 43 appearances. City's David Silva has seven goals and 16 assists in 50 appearances, while Chelsea's Eden Hazard has 11 goals and three assists in 40 games.  

When looking at the minutes per goal/assist in games against the top six, Mata averages one every 149 minutes, followed by Philippe Coutinho every 173 minutes and Mesut Ozil every 180 minutes.  

This season, he scored the first league goal of the Mourinho era at United against Bournemouth, as well as knocking City out of the League Cup.   

Finally, United seem to have the player they thought they were signing when he joined from Chelsea. Ironically, it's the man who thought he was surplus to requirements at Stamford Bridge who is now the one to bring the best out of Mata.   

Scott is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.

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