Manchester United went into last Sunday’s game against Chelsea knowing that the only result that would do was a victory. On the back of a dreadful string of performances, the chances of that happening were unlikely. But this game was a six-pointer and, if United could recreate some of their early former under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they were in with a chance.
United started the game well, throwing everything at Chelsea, and were rewarded for their efforts with a goal from Juan Mata. The forward, who Chelsea supporters had voted as their player of the year in the two seasons leading up to his move to Old Trafford, clearly did not buy into the notion that players shouldn’t celebrate against their former clubs. The Spaniard ran to the home fans, punching the air, before continuing the celebrations with his teammates.
“Scoring a goal at Old Trafford is always amazing, it is a feeling that is difficult to put into words,” he reflected after the game.
Solskjaer was ready to deliver a rallying half-time team talk when David de Gea fumbled a tame shot from distance and Chelsea were gifted an equalising goal. Another opportunity to secure a top-four finish was squandered.
With just one game remaining at Old Trafford this season, there’s the possibility that United fans may have seen the last of Mata in their shirt, with his contract set to expire this summer.
The new manager is looking for a pacey attack, which Mata doesn’t contribute much too, but has enjoyed his fair share of playing time under Ole.
His legs are gone and while he’s still capable of picking out a pass, or putting the ball in the back of the net, he doesn’t have what it takes to break at speed. He arguably never did during his time in Manchester but that didn’t stop manager after manager playing him out on the right, failing to utilise his strengths.
Reports in the week have suggested that Mata is still keen to extend his contract at United and there is an offer on the table. Having just turned 31, he will only have the option of a further year and the club are trying to take a firmer stance on salaries for fringe players. He’s reportedly earning £150,000 a week, which is sadly a fairly modest salary compared to some of their players who are failing to deliver but is still a hefty wage for a player well past his best.
Best mate Ander Herrera is all but confirmed as leaving for PSG after United failed to match their salary offer and the club may not feel pressure to placate Mata either.
What could put Mata in a favourable position, as far as Ed Woodward is concerned at least, is the hugely positive image the Spaniard has. His Common Goal charitable project sets him apart from most modern day footballers, with him not only donating his earnings but also encouraging professionals all around the world to join him. There have been suggestions before now that the club has already planned to invite him on as an ambassador once he retires.
As probably the nicest man in football, Mata has plenty of fans at Old Trafford who would like to see him extend his stay too.
Statistics published this week won’t do their cause any harm either. He’s covered more distance on average than any player at the club this season, with 11.28km, ranking just above the likes of Jesse Lingard, Fred, Herrera and Scott McTominay.
What was startling about these statistics is that no forward in the league averages less average distance covered than the 8.45km of Anthony Martial, who has fallen out of favour with the manager more recently.
Solskjaer has claimed that he wants the hardest working team in the league so Mata’s numbers might put him in the manager’s plans.
With Huddersfield at the weekend, it will be interesting to see if Solskjaer sticks with Mata in the starting line-up. The game means little to United now, so it should be an opportunity for the manager to start looking to the future. But banking on Mata might be futile if the contract situation isn’t sorted out quickly.
Keeping Mata probably doesn’t make a lot of sense if United want to improve next season, as he isn’t going to get any better, but after the cull of deadwood who aren’t prepared to work for the team is complete, the squad may well be down to the bare bones.
But if Mata is to move on this summer, he will leave the fans with memories of goals against Liverpool and Manchester City, as well the all-important late equaliser in the 2016 FA Cup final that became United’s first piece of silverware since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
His goal against Chelsea might be his last cause for celebration in a United shirt but Mata still has a couple of opportunities left to prove his worth to the club, starting with Huddersfield on Sunday.