Up until a few weeks ago, Juan Mata was in a really poor run of form and his Manchester United career—which has never quite caught fire—looked to have stalled again. He was benched for three successive games, only appearing as a substitute against Newcastle United, Liverpool and Southampton.
Much as they have for the whole side, though, things have taken a turn for the better for Mata since Louis van Gaal re-jigged his team and put the former Chelsea man in the heart of the attack, at No.10.
Mata has one goal but no assists in those games; however, his presence has correlated with United's entire attacking unit looking much better than it has at any point this season.
He may not have yet put in a personally outstanding shift in the role, but he has been functional and efficient—something which can hardly be said of any of the other pretenders to the No. 10 spot this season.
Mata's whole United career has been something of a paradox. Off the pitch he is, of course, a delight, with a cheerful social-media presence and his own YouTube channel. He obviously values fan engagement, and he and Ander Herrera were prepared to appear on Full Time Devils—an unofficial fan channel.
On the pitch there have been some truly outstanding moments, but not all that many, and certainly not as many as would have been hoped when he arrived at great expense—and in a helicopter—in January 2014.
There was Anfield in 2015, of course, a moment that will not soon be forgotten. He was an important part of a rare good performance under David Moyes soon after arriving when United played Newcastle at St James' Park, and a front four of Mata, Shinji Kagawa, Adnan Januzaj and Javier Hernandez were in devastating form.
But for most of the time since he arrived, he has been played out of position in teams that are struggling to build attacking rhythm.
Moyes frequently played him as an out-and-out right midfielder. Van Gaal seemed to struggle to work out exactly where to accommodate him when he was trying to fit Mata, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao into the same team.
A centre-midfield spot was one of his solutions. another was at No. 10 in the generally ineffective 3-4-1-2 formation he favoured for the beginning of his time in charge. Then, a change of system in spring of 2015 saw Mata played as a false right-winger in a 4-3-3.
He was remarkably effective from there, but the legacy of that spell has been damaging. This season Van Gaal abandoned the attacking, vivacious 4-3-3 which saw Mata partnered with Herrera on the right of attacking midfield for a more ponderous 4-2-3-1.
Mata, understandably, struggled to adapt as he was forced to compromise some of his attacking instincts for his defensive duties. Gone was the linkup with Herrera and instead came his attempts to link up with a then-out-of-form Rooney.
It also often skewed the balance of the whole attack, as he often came inside, cramping the limited space available in the centre against the many teams who have sat deep and narrow against United this season—see the first half of United's 3-0 home win over Sunderland for a good example of this.
The cries of "play Mata at No. 10" have finally been heeded—and at 10 in a system that is working, rather than in the 3-4-1-2, which so rarely did. While United's attacking improvements are multifactorial—Rooney's form, Michael Carrick's return and the good work done by Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard—having Mata as the fulcrum has proved effective in the past few games.
He was given a huge ovation by the entire ground when he was substituted off at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. It is no surprise he would still be popular at Chelsea given the manner in which he comports himself. That popularity is largely shared by United fans, though they have only rarely seen what Chelsea's supporters saw when he was their player of the season two years running.
It is much to be hoped—for his sake and for United's—that his recent switch to his best position continues for some time to come. The evidence of the last three games, while a small sample size, suggests there is plenty left to come from Juan Mata at Manchester United.