Juan Mata indispensable to Mourinho's bid for Manchester United glory
He's one of Manchester United's most potent attackers, and yet in a league season where his team have so far scored 16 times, he has not yet appeared on the scoresheet. Since things kicked off in August, he's so far made greater headlines for his charitable activities than for anything he has done on the pitch. Yet, during United's superb start to the season, he has been indispensable.
He is, of course, Juan Mata and his prominence in a Jose Mourinho team may surprise even him. Yet here he is, quietly and brilliantly integral. He goes missing in games in the very best sense -- that is to say, the moment he enters the final third, he seems to vanish from the sights of opposing defenders.
He doesn't find space so much as invent it. He is not tall, particularly quick or aggressive but any ball struck within a few feet of him falls instantly under his influence; any attack finds him immediately on the half-turn. He has often been compared to Manchester City's David Silva, a fellow left-footed Spaniard with similarly majestic gifts, and this season their roles have more in common than ever. Both Mata and Silva find themselves playing behind forward lines of uncommon guile and speed, with their role not so much to scale the wall as to tell their attackers where all the footholds are.
Much is made of the fact that Mata rarely completes a full match under Mourinho, but the important fact is that his manager trusts him to start. After 70 minutes of his ceaseless and precise prompting, Mourinho generally removes him so faster and more physical players can take care of the chaos he has so carefully created. Mata loosens the tooth just enough so his teammates can tear it out at the root.
We see Mata do this time and again -- dropping into the inside-right position, about 10 feet from the touchline, either nudging the ball infield to the onrushing Henrikh Mkhitaryan or tucking it into the path of Antonio Valencia, who sticks to the flank as faithfully as if it were a tramline. Though Mkhitaryan has been given much credit for the assists he has provided so far, it would be unfair to dismiss Mata as a more subtle but equally dangerous architect.
In Paul Pogba's absence, there will be a need for others to pick up the creative slack that he has left. Against Everton, Mata played alongside Marouane Fellaini and Nemanja Matic in a midfield three, with their size presumably compensating for his lack of physical presence. However, Mata has combined superbly with Ander Herrera in the past, and a pairing of the two Spain internationals just ahead of Matic would prove a troubling proposition for most Premier League midfields.
Mata, for his part, almost drew more attention to himself with a fine free kick against Everton, which clattered against Jordan Pickford's right-hand post in the second half. Before that highlight, he had busily done what he does best in the United team -- opening up new channels of attack against deep-lying defences with passes of exquisite timing and weight.
Mata's statistics compare favourably to those of the other major creators so far this season -- that is to say, to Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Per 90 minutes, he completes far fewer forward passes than Silva, but plays almost as many key passes -- 2.32 to Silva's 2.68 -- and almost as many as De Bruyne (2.54). He also completes a higher percentage of pass (88 percent) than anyone other than Silva (91 percent). He is only just behind Silva in terms of interceptions (0.87 to Silva's 1.03) but, startlingly, wins a higher percentage of his duels than any other of these players -- 64.3 percent, with the next highest being De Bruyne's 60 percent and Silva lagging behind on 50 percent.
Under Mourinho, then, Mata has become a defensively astute deep-lying playmaker, whose eye for breaking up play means that he can launch counterattacks while opposing defences are still scrambling to organise themselves. Under Louis van Gaal, he played in a more advanced position, where he was essentially a poacher in the second line of attack -- here, though, he is less prolific but arguably more influential.
Mata began the season with a burst of publicity for his off-field generosity -- with his Common Goal initiative, he is urging other athletes like him to give 1 percent of their salary to charity -- but over time, his selflessness on the pitch will come to be acknowledged. Any team that aims to defeat United this season will have to find a solution to his uniquely elusive movement. So far, though there are of course far tougher challenges to come, he is someone upon whom the opposition have barely laid a glove.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.