January is a month bursting at the seams with transfer talk. There's speculation, there are rumours and, occasionally, moves that actually go through.
Manchester United's. Juan Mata. Four words that, together, will take some getting used to.
Twelve months ago, the transfer would have been unthinkable. The World Cup, Champions League, FA Cup, Europa League and European Championship winner (to name a few) was adored by those inside Stamford Bridge and admired by those on the out. Twice voted Chelsea's Player of the Year in his two seasons at the club, a departure was the last thing to expect.
Enter Jose Mourinho, whose preference for Oscar in the No. 10 role at SW6 saw Mata relegated to the sidelines. The Spaniard was marginalised to such an extent that he only completed two full 90-minute Premier League games, from a potential 22 this season, before exiting.
Mata's move to Old Trafford on January 26th broke Manchester United's transfer record. A fee of £37.1 million was paid—a sum perhaps over the odds, yet absolutely priceless on so many levels.
But it's not the money that made this the window's biggest or best deal.
Mata to United represented a confirmation that the reigning league champions are still a force to be reckoned with and it was an important move, at a crucial time, for the club.
In face of this season's consistently average performances and despite last summer's confidence-shredding failure in the transfer market, Mata has proved that United are still a draw.
As important as signing Mata himself will be those who could join him in the future. Players wary of United’s direction under David Moyes could be lured to Old Trafford by Mata. Some, already there, could be convinced to stay.
United's current squad is glaring in its inadequacies, and it's no secret that Moyes needs to strengthen. Defence and central midfield are two areas currently in need of complete overhaul, and a playmaker in the Mata mold was not the side's most pressing need when the winter window opened.
Strengthening a side, however, can be about more than patching up a threadbare squad. There are also additions who can mend fraying confidence and make those around them walk a little taller. Mata, in his move to United, is the latter, just as Mesut Ozil was not the player Arsenal needed most back in September yet lifted those around him immeasurably.
United fans who have been publicly patient with Moyes so far have also had some anxieties relieved. Mata's move has bought his manager time.
Out of two cups. Yes, but we've got Juan Mata. Beaten eight times in the league. Yes, but we've got Juan Mata. Manchester City are flying. Yes, but we've got Juan Mata. Rewind, repeat.
This kind of thinking, while not universal, will prompt high expectations, and it's a reassurance that will swiftly expire if performances do not improve.
Time will tell, but the 25-year-old is proven in the Premier League and he was anything but a gamble—top-flight audiences already know what Mata can do and everyone's aware of his skills.
His versatility as a forward and his creative ability is without question and suddenly, a front-three pairing of Wayne Rooney, Mata and Robin van Persie is a mouthwatering prospect for fans of the club and those who are intrigued by the current narrative that United are a team in decline.
Mata has lifted United fans and, it seems, the club's players too. As Phil Jones told The Guardian's Jamie Jackson:
It makes an impact in the dressing room when you sign a player of that calibre. He is such a talented player on the ball. He has definitely lifted spirits in the dressing room and especially in training. We want to impress and show him that we are one of the best teams to be at. has done well and I am sure he will be a huge asset for us.
Although a little rusty, Mata has already played twice for Moyes— with one win, one loss and two assists chalked up in the Premier League. A loss against Stoke City was not in the script, but the signs look good for the future.
On top of Mata's impact at Old Trafford are the ramifications that the move will have on his World Cup aspirations. It's a win-win situation for United's new No. 8, whose increased game time should see him nail down a berth in Spain's squad this summer.
To United fans, Mata is the bright speck in an otherwise greying season. He's given hope, confidence and a renewed sense of direction. If deployed by his manager correctly, could become the lynchpin in the side.
To supporters of other clubs, he's provided an intriguing storyline—one that will be scrutinised from all angles as the season plays out.
And for his country, Mata's switch to Old Trafford could make all the difference as they head into Brazil 2014.
One move, many layers. Mata is the Premier League January signing of 2014.