Why Press Criticism of Juan Mata's Early Manchester United Career Is Misguided

Paul AnsorgeFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2014

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - MAY 11:  Juan Mata of Manchester United celebrates scoring during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Manchester United at St Mary's Stadium on May 11, 2014 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Ian Walton/Getty Images

In recent weeks there has been some press criticism of Juan Mata's time so far at Manchester United, criticism that appears to be, at best, misguided. While his United career has not been an unmitigated success so far, Mata has performed admirably considering the circumstances into which he arrived.

He arrived amid a whirlwind of hype, whipped up by the rotor blades of the helicopter that brought him to Carrington. He arrived into a side whose problems could not be masked by the signing of one player, let alone a player who plies his trade in the area of the pitch where United are best stocked.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 26: Juan Mata of Manchester United in a rain during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Norwich City at Old Trafford on April 26, 2014 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Imag
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

And yet since his arrival, Mata has scored six goals and provided four assists in his 15 appearances. The assists began immediately. The goals took a bit longer to arrive, but once the floodgates were opened, the goals did not let up—Mata finishes the season having scored those six goals in his final six appearances.

Those six goals are enough to make him fourth in United's league goalscorers this season, and fifth overall. Only the squad's out-and-out strikers have scored more than him.

He has been voted the club's player of the month by fans twice since his arrival, for February and April, a remarkable achievement for a player so young in his United career.

And yet, some of the criticisms of him have bordered on the extreme. Once the teamsheet for Ryan Giggs' managerial debut against Norwich on 26 April 2014 was announced, the Northern Football Correspondent of the Daily Mail, Ian Ladyman, tweeted:

 

Giggs sees what anyone with a pair of eyes can see. Mata dropped. Quite right too. #mufc

— Ian Ladyman (@Ian_Ladyman_DM) April 26, 2014

 

 

On an episode of the BBC Radio Five Live's sporting panel show Fighting Talk, broadcast on the same day, I was surprised to hear journalist and United fan Jim White share his disappointment in Mata's performances for United so far.

Mark Ogden of the Daily Telegraph, writing in his season review suggests, "The club record signing of Juan Mata in January appeared a coup, but the Spanish playmaker has done little to suggest he can become a central figure at Old Trafford."

During the commentary for United's game against Southampton on Sunday, broadcast in the United States of America on the Sy-Fy channel, I listened in shock as co-commentator Ray Houghton wondered aloud following a misplaced pass from Mata: "What has happened to him? He's a shadow of the player he was at Chelsea."

NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, ENGLAND - APRIL 05: Juan Mata of Manchester United scores his sides first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Manchester United at St James' Park on April 5, 2014 in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England.
Paul Thomas/Getty Images

Moments later, Mata capped off his season with a wonderful free-kick, presumably forcing Houghton into some swift re-evaluation.

Mata's time at United has not been perfect, by any means. He suffered from being used away from his favoured positions by David Moyes. He, like the rest of his team-mates had little to be proud of in his performances against Manchester City and Liverpool at Old Trafford.

However, while football is, of course, a game of opinions, the notion that he "has done little to suggest he can become a central figure at Old Trafford" seems almost comically wide of the mark.

When Mata has operated in a functional attacking unit, on those rare occasions that he has been supported by United's limited and lacklustre midfield, he has lit up Old Trafford, causing optimism and joy. His goals were celebrated by the United faithful with an outpouring of acceptance and love.

His efforts to inculcate the culture of United have not gone unnoticed, the trip he took to the museum at Old Trafford, per the Independent, may have been PR, but it was very fine PR.

Appreciation for the performances of players is clearly highly subjective. Believing he has not yet found the very best of his form at Old Trafford appears reasonable. However, the idea of suggesting his time at United has been any kind of serious disappointment does not.

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - APRIL 05: Juan Mata of Manchester United celebrates his first goal with team mate David De Gea (R) during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Manchester United at St James' Park on April 5, 2014 in
Paul Thomas/Getty Images

On the pitch Mata has been a light in the darkness for United fans. His touch, his vision and latterly his return to goalscoring form is a key reason many fans feel able to look forward to next season with an optimism that seemed unimaginable two months ago. It seems likely that those critics of Mata's early United career will soon seem as misguided as those who wrote off the United career of his friend, David de Gea.