Juan Mata’s second spell under Jose Mourinho has certainly been more successful than his first.
Indeed, rather than being publicly named-and-shamed by the Portuguese for his inability to track back, before being shipped off to a rival Premier League club, the Spaniard has found himself a useful if not essential part of Mourinho’s Manchester United squad this season, starting over half of their Premier League fixtures and providing some big contributions in the cup competitions.
Nonetheless, Mata’s place in the starting XI is by no means guaranteed. Still fearful of how little he offers off the ball, Mourinho’s fielded the former Chelsea Player of the Year selectively this term, leaving him out of potentially season-defining fixtures against Liverpool and Tottenham and only bringing him on at half-time against his former club in October, when the Red Devils were already 2-0 down.
Man United face Liverpool once again this Sunday in FootballFanCast’s Fixture in Focus and it remains to be seen whether Mourinho will start the attacking midfielder or choose more industrious options out wide – echoing the gameplan that saw his side fight out a scoreless draw at Anfield earlier this term.
We at FootballFanCast reckon the 28-year-old could well prove the difference against Liverpool this weekend, however, and here are three stats that prove he should be one of the first names on Mourinho’s team-sheet.
Despite having to contend with a bit-part role for much of the season, recent performances have suggested Mata is about to hit top gear. The opposition has hardly been stellar (West Ham, Middlesbrough, Reading and Hull), but nonetheless, the midfielder’s last four outings have produced two goals and two assists.
Liverpool have conceded the fewest shots per game of any Premier League side this season (7.8), but Mata’s last four displays have bordered upon trigger happy, producing more than three efforts at goal per match. In what looks set to be a tight game at Old Trafford, Mata’s determination to test the goalkeeper could be pivotal – especially considering Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet have both shown they’re prone to errors this season.
This set of statistics may be from November but with Phillipe Coutinho injured and Mesut Ozil not making much of an impact against Manchester City last month, Mata still ranks head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to goals and assists against top six opposition.
Indeed, Mata contributes to one goal in less than two appearances against the cream of the crop in the Premier League and Liverpool certainly fall into that category this season, currently second place and five points behind leaders Chelsea. The Spain international may seem somewhat unassuming in that regard, but the stats show how influential he is in the big games – even if his defensive efforts can leave a lot to be desired.
On the surface, James Milner is enjoying a fine first season in his new position of left-back, regularly overlapping to provide width in attack and notching up five goals and two assists in the process – exactly the kind of contribution Jurgen Klopp craves in his definitively-fluid, goal-hungry system. But in terms of the nuts and bolts of the No.3 trade, the former England international isn’t exactly excelling.
As you can see above, from all 15 left-backs to have made more than 10 Premier League appearances this season, he ranks bottom for shots blocked and interceptions, first for aerial duels lost and second for number of times dribbled past-per-match.
Combine that with a Mata in strong form who seemingly always turns up on the big occasion, assuming he’ll take up his usual role on the wing, and United’s right/Liverpool’s left could well be the area where the match is lost and won on Sunday, with the Spaniard providing the difference against the defensively-naive Milner.