Juan Mata’s technique and vision should make him one of the first names on Manchester United team sheet

It is no coincidence that Manchester United’s wins in the Premier League this season have come with Juan Mata in the side, writes Thomas Woods.
Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata, centre, is congratulated by his teammates after scoring against Leicester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, September 24, 2016. Anthony Delvin / AFP
Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata, centre, is congratulated by his teammates after scoring against Leicester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, September 24, 2016. Anthony Delvin / AFP

It is no coincidence that Manchester United’s wins in the Premier League this season have come with Juan Mata in the side.

Mata played in the early wins at Bournemouth and Hull City, and was particularly impressive in the 2-0 home victory over Southampton. Then he was dropped for the Manchester derby earlier this month, where United were humbled by City at Old Trafford.

Recalled to the starting XI after a run of three defeats in four games in all competitions, Mata was superb as United comfortably beat champions Leicester City 4-1 at home on Saturday.

• Richard Jolly’s Premier League Team of the Week

Paul Pogba earned the man-of-the-match award but Mata was right behind him.

What the Spaniard brings to a side that very few players in the league do is vision combined with the technique to execute it. Mata’s touch is often perfect and he has the ability to almost always play a first-time pass if needed.

There was one moment in the Southampton game where Mata played an awkward ball with a first-time cushioned volley that was perfectly weighted to draw Virgil van Dijk out of position and put Zlatan Ibrahimovic through on goal. It is a technique honed through years of top coaching in Primera Liga academies, which sets Spanish players apart, makes them the gold standard.

Quality of players may differ as you drop through those academies, but a consistent factor is fine technique and players who are comfortable playing one-touch football.

In the Premier League, the likes of David Silva, Mesut Ozil, Philippe Coutinho all have the vision that allows them to play the least obvious pass, to split a defence. It makes their teams less predictable and that is why United need Mata in their starting XI

They have pacey, direct players in Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford. Mata is the counter-balance to that and the contrast between the way he caresses the ball and Wayne Rooney’s recent performances is startling. Put it this way, you never see a ball bounce 10 yards sideways when Mata attempts to control it.

The Spaniard’s form now presents a conundrum for manager Jose Mourinho. Mata was shunted out of Mourinho’s Chelsea squad, and then there was a campaign against him claiming that the midfielder was incapable of defending and therefore could not fit in a winning formation.

So Mourinho must not have envisaged Mata being a first-choice player six league games into his reign at Old Trafford. But that is what he is: He has to be one of the first names on the team sheet.

He gives United the guile that they missed on so many occasions last season and the idea of him and Armenian playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan in tandem, combined with the speed of the likes Martial and Rashford, is an exciting prospect.

It is hard to see how Mourinho can drop Mata. Then again, it is hard to see how Mourinho can pick Rooney and he has only just dropped him.

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Published: September 26, 2016 04:00 AM

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