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Juan Mata once struggled to rise above Manchester United’s mediocrity. Now he’s part of the problem

Juan Mata

A Champions League-winning midfielder returns to Stamford Bridge. A guarantee of goals for Chelsea, he makes his team more productive and entertaining. Enough about Frank Lampard, however: Juan Mata is staging a different sort of sequel to his Chelsea story in Wednesday’s EFL Cup tie.

Lampard took efficiency to new levels in a career that brought a Chelsea record 211 goals. He skippered them on the most famous night in their history and, though Mata missed his penalty in the 2012 Champions League final shootout, he took the corner that brought Didier Drogba’s equaliser.

He was style and substance in a small package, a man whose last full season at Stamford Bridge yielded 20 goals and 25 assists. He was directly involved in 45 goals in 2012/13. Stoke City were involved in 41.

So far this season, he has not directly contributed to any. He has no goals, no assists. If Manchester United lost Romelu Lukaku’s goals, they have also lost Mata’s. His quiet decline has been overshadowed by Alexis Sanchez’s expensive failure, by Lukaku’s protracted departure, by the circus that surrounds Paul Pogba, even by Jesse Lingard’s own drought, but there should be something startling and worrying about it. These days, it is not news when Mata is benched, or an unused substitute. He has started to blend into the background.

There are greater indictments of United, more recent missteps, more costly mistakes. He was the club-record buy back in 2014. Now, Fred cost £15 million more. 

But while Mata’s status among football’s nicest men means he does not belong among the wrong characters they have recruited, he is in unwanted company among the footballers who have deteriorated at Old Trafford. Even if he was a bit-part player in the six months after Jose Mourinho returned to Stamford Bridge, he had been the finest, most creative, most prolific attacking midfielder in England between 2011 and 2013.

Now, his most recent goal was against Chelsea. It was in April. He has only struck twice in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign. If his reunion with Mourinho had the feel of an uneasy truce, he at least delivered more for the Portuguese than for his successor.

That impotence is problematic. Only five players have scored for United this season – Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial, Daniel James and Scott McTominay – and the burden on them has been exacerbated by others’ barren spells. At the very least, Pogba, Lingard and Mata would have been expected to have joined them on the scoresheet by now, even if injuries and selection have reduced their opportunities. When it is said that United needed to sign another winger, it is not a reflection of the one they did buy, in the gifted James, but of the diminishing returns of the ones they already possessed, in Mata and Lingard. 

In both a campaign and a United career, there is the sense the Spaniard is a blameless victim, the nice guy caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. He has had four managers who scarcely suited him: David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Mourinho and Solskjaer.

He is in a team shorn of creativity, where too few others can fashion him chances. He has been in a side lacking likeminded souls, or similar technical talents. He is an old player in a younger team, a slower figure in a side built around pace, a foreigner in an increasingly British group, a man who looks the past when James, Martial and Rashford represent the future, he looks United’s amiable anomaly.

Yet when United have not scored in open play in Mata’s last 342 minutes on the pitch, he is also part of the problem. He ought to have been the creator in chief at times, even if some line-ups suggest the other 10 are altogether lacking in creativity. 

He should have been able to rise above the mediocrity. He has never touched the same heights for United as he did at Chelsea, but he did at least get 10 goals in three successive seasons. Even they feel distant days for a man who had an indelible impact at Chelsea but whose returns for United have declined to the extent they have been non-existent so far this season.

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