If football players were measured in talent and talent only, Juan Mata would be a central figure at Manchester United. There are few in the Premier League who command the feel for the ball that the Spanish playmaker does. One player who can does possess such a level of technical ability is David Silva, another Spanish playmaker and former Valencia player who currently calls the North-West home.
But while, stylistically, Mata and Silva, both diminutive pass-masters with great vision and creativity, have plenty in common, they find themselves in very different situations. Mata, a peripheral figure at Man Utd, is just months away from leaving the club as a free agent, with his contract set to expire in the summer. Silva, on the other hand, is a central figure for Pep Guardiola’s Premier League pace-setters. He might even be Manchester City’s best ever player.
Despite being 32, Silva’s influence at the Etihad Stadium has arguably never been greater. That isn’t to say he has been City’s best player so far this season – Bernardo Silva has arguably outshone his namesake – but he has become the embodiment of Guardiola’s ideology. He is a reflection of the way the Catalan wants his team to play.
Mata should be this sort of figure for Man Utd. Signed for a then club record fee of £37 million nearly four years ago, the Spaniard should be a giant of the Old Trafford club. But he’s not. Mata has been a victim of circumstance, fleeing Chelsea to escape Jose Mourinho only for the Portuguese to eventually follow him north.
At a time when talk has turned towards the potential hiring of a director of football or sporting director at Old Trafford, Mata has become a symbol of United’s scattergun transfer strategy in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson age. He is a sign of how there is no coherent signing policy in place at the club.
David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and Mourinho have all failed to get the best out of Mata. Such struggles have even led some to label him a luxury player, but that is grossly unfair. For the right manager, for the right club, Mata would be one of the Premier League’s very best. He’d be up there with contemporary Silva as English football’s playmaker general.
Mourinho sees Mata as a first team figure, but does nothing to harness the natural ability of the Spaniard. He is a square peg in a round hole out on the right wing. His attacking, creative instincts are curbed by Mourinho’s demands that his wide men always track back. Mata is good enough and talented enough to have made himself useful under the Portuguese, but neither coach nor player can be particularly happy with the current arrangement.
Of course, Silva hasn’t always played under Guardiola, but even going as far back as 2010, when a 24-year-old pitched up at the Etihad after a £24 million move from Valencia, City had an ideology they wanted to impose. They had a holistic idea of what they wanted to be and that has seen Silva harnessed by each and every one of his managers in England.
Mata has a decision to make, with Arsenal and Valencia two of the clubs reported to be interested in taking the 30-year-old on a free at the end of the season. Mata has made over 150 appearances for United, but in how many of those games has the playmaker really reached top form? It’d be understandable if he wants to make a fresh start somewhere else.
Silva doesn’t need a fresh start, even if he insists that his current deal until 2020 will be his last at the Etihad. City have been perfect for Silva and Silva has been perfect for City. Mata must look at his compatriot and wonder… what if he had found a club to harness him in the same way? How differently might his career have panned out?