From the possession-admiring years around Barcelona and Spain’s dominance, football has changed. While the aesthetic joy of a team dominating the ball throughout is still appreciated, intensity and pace of play has increased. Sides like Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham have caught the eye with a way of combating the ball-hogging sides. Lightning fast attacks are desirable in stark contrast to the patient football that made Barcelona and Spain so remarkable.
This does, naturally, have a stark impact on the players. Certain players were (and still are) suited to teams who want to dominate the ball, while others thrive in the energetic units that Klopp, Pochettino and many others build. Clubs require a different squad profile if trying to implement a system that needs an intense pressing game to if they were structuring a team to hog the ball.
One player who arrived in the twilight of the tiki-taka obsession with Juan Mata. Despite featuring for Spain during their immensely successful period, Mata has seen the tactical trends alter drastically during his time in England. He was bought by Chelsea as the key to unlock defences from a free-roaming number 10 role, a role and style of play that Chelsea had openly wanted to model on Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
His slight build and only marginally above average pace make him reliant on his technical prowess. Luckily for the former Valencia man, that is quite a catalogue to rely on. A wondrous left foot is capable of drifting passes through a defence with glorious ease, while he has always cropped up with goals on a regular basis that puts many others in his role to shame.
Far from a natural athlete, the Spaniard does not suit a high pressing side or a team thriving on counters. Mata is – for the most part – at his best when his team can control possession and he can drop into pockets of space to create, while occasionally feeding off a dominant central striker to find shooting spaces.
After the desire for number 10s waned – or at least the required profile changed – Mata’s role diminished at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho. This was partly a sign of Mourinho’s man management control and partly Mourinho’s own blueprint for his team, but it reflected a changing of the stylistic guard in English football. The technicians at the heart of a team’s attacking play were no longer the framework for a side.
Mata overcame Mourinho’s Stamford Bridge power trip as a marquee signing for a turbulent Manchester United under David Moyes. Moyes’ job could not be saved by Mata, but his quality was evident from the day he signed. Soon, it was the turn of Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman also placed faith in Mata, both in a wide role and as a 10. The squad changed dramatically from the January Mata arrived to April 2017, but the Spaniard remains a vital player whose importance continues to be overlooked.
Even once Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford, Mata stuck it out against the persistent murmurings he would be moved on. As Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were all in and out of the side, Mata continued to produce important moments and made the berth on the right flank his own.
His peak years have missed the ideal time to be a player of his mould, yet Mata’s quality has maintained his status as one of the Premier League’s best – and most important – individuals. A delight to watch on the pitch and a gentleman off of it, Mata has transcended a change in Premier League desirables.