Nobody writes songs about falling out of love. Falling in love, sure. Fluttering heart this. Can’t get enough of you that. Even songs about breaking up are popular, in their own right. But falling out of love? It’s different. It’s neither a whirlwind nor a kick in the gut; it’s a slow, painful unravelling of something that once seemed like it would last forever. Somewhere along the line, what we built became broken, and we can’t put it back together. We don’t even remember what it used to look like.
We used to love Juan Mata. He came over from Valencia bright-eyed and beautiful, immediately winning the hearts of Chelsea fans and neutrals alike. Everyone wanted him on their team. Now, barely three years later, we seem collectively resigned to the fact that he’s a man out of place, on borrowed time until he’s shipped off to foreign shores.
What happened? Spoiler alert: It was José Mourinho – a man with such a refined penchant for getting under people’s skin that he turned Arsène Wenger into a shovey five year-old. He planted the first seeds of doubt in our minds.
Mourinho returned to Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2013 to find a squad heavy on talented playmakers but light on muscular midfielders, as well as a not-so-open-as-the-first-time-around Abramovich checkbook. He decided early on that Mata would be one of those to make way in order to fund a reshaping of the squad.
With Oscar and Eden Hazard already on the books and the spectre of Financial Fair Play looming, it was a pragmatic enough plan. The problem was that Mata was fans’ and teammates’ reigning player of the year, a man beloved by Stamford Bridge regulars and media alike. Mata was not a player to be cast aside without some backlash.
So Mourinho slowly and subtly chipped away at Mata’s halo. He talked about the qualities he wanted his new team to have: defensive strength, speed on the counter attack. Without ever criticizing Mata directly, he left it up to us to draw conclusions. At first there was bemusement and even some outrage, but eventually we rationalized. If Mourinho is a genius coach and he doesn’t rate Mata, then Mata can’t be that good, can he? It makes sense, we said. Mata really does lack pace, and he can’t defend. He’s a luxury player.
The perceived fall from grace continued after Mata became Manchester United’s then-record signing in January. He contributed admirably to David Moyes’ abortion of a campaign at Old Trafford, but doubts were already entrenched. Did he fit the philosophy of this team? Under Louis van Gaal, most assumed he would be the man to make to fit new superstar striker Radamel Falcao while still playing the apparently undroppable pair of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney. Club captain Rooney, before daftly getting himself suspended for booting Stewart Downing up the ass for no good reason, had assumed Mata’s preferred position: the tip of the midfield diamond. The Spaniard was the odd man out, and there was a collective shrug of acceptance from observers across the board.
How did Mata come to mean to little? How did he become so disposable? To continue this already stretched relationship analogy, it’s not him, it’s us. We’ve allowed ourselves to believe that the wool was pulled over our eyes this entire time, and that Mata wasn’t all he was cracked up to be.
But we’re wrong. Juan Mata was, and indisputably still is, a cracking soccerballer. Yes, he can’t defend very well, but apparently neither can anyone in the United backline, and that’s what those players actually get paid to do. Yes, he’s not especially quick, but the ball moves faster than any player, and Mata moves the ball quicker than most.
We’re the ones that moved the proverbial goalposts. We starting judging him on qualities he doesn’t even particularly need. The skill, the vision, the incisiveness, the calmness under pressure — the very things that a player in his position is supposed to embody — Mata has in spades. He is capable of moments of magic that only a handful of players in the sport can even approach. Rooney, the current incumbent of the No. 10 role at United, is still a reliable goalscorer and a very good player on his day, but he has been in evident decline for the last three years. He has all the close control of a wild donkey on acid. Mata? The man glides, for fuck’s sake.
“But what about his stats?” the miserable, prickish pragmatists ask. Even though reducing soccer to mere numbers should be a sin against god and man, Mata has still delivered eight goals and five assists in 20 starts in his admittedly underwhelming United career. Before that, he won virtually every trophy on offer: Copa del Rey, FA Cup, Champions League, Europa League, World Cup, and European Championship, to be exact. Along the way, he scored in the European Championship final, assisted Chelsea’s only goal from open play in the Champions League final, and set up the winner in a Europa League final. Not only is he is a model professional, an obviously bright young man (still only 26), and captivating to watch on the field, but he also scores goals, makes goals, and wins things. Are you not entertained?
It’s time to take a step back from the current narrative and remember what an accomplished player Mata’s become. It’s time to remind ourselves that when it comes to a player of his pedigree, it is the team that should be adapting to him, and not the other way around. It’s time to remember just why we fell in love with Juan Manuel Mata García in the first place.