Mata appears to have no Manchester United future under Mourinho
Juan Mata must have feared his time was up at Old Trafford when Jose Mourinho was appointed manager of Manchester United. The two men have such a different approach to the game that the gulf between them is unbridgeable. The best Mata can hope for is a swift move away and a chance to rebuild his career elsewhere.
The 28-year-old's 30-minute appearance as a substitute in the Community Shield against Leicester City ended when he was replaced in the closing moments of the game. Mourinho explained the decision afterwards by suggesting that it was just a pragmatic move to help protect United's 2-1 lead. Mata was not tall enough, Mourinho said, when Leicester were sending long balls into David De Gea's box.
On face value, that seems reasonable, but Mata must be feeling a sinking sense of déjà vu. Mourinho shipped the midfielder out of Chelsea in January 2014 after Mata had been player of the year at Stamford Bridge for each of the previous two seasons. Later, Mata complained there had been "no relationship" with the manager and stated that there was "no dialogue."
It was an open secret around Chelsea, though, that Mourinho was not a fan of Mata's style. Even before the Portuguese arrived at the club, during his last days as Real Madrid manager, he had targeted Mata as one of the Chelsea players he planned to unload as soon as possible. Along with David Luiz and Fernando Torres, Mata was closely linked with Rafael Benitez, the previous Chelsea boss. All three players departed Stamford Bridge before Mourinho's second season in which Chelsea won the title.
Benitez valued Mata's intelligence and cleverness on the ball. The Spanish manager made his compatriot the creative hub of a team that was full of flair players. The competition to play the No. 10 role was fierce, with Eden Hazard and Oscar also capable of pulling the strings, but Benitez preferred Mata's thoughtfulness on the ball and his passing range.
What impressed Benitez frustrated Mourinho. The new United manager likes his teams to pour forward with pace, getting the ball upfield rapidly and releasing the midfield runners to cause havoc in the opposition defence. Mata's habit of taking a touch or two, pausing and looking up to check on the movement in front of him frustrates Mourinho.
Players who slow the game down do not suit the new United manager's plans, and Mata's safety-first passing policy does not fit in with Mourinho's tactics, either. If a forward pass is not on, Mata goes square to keep possession. Benitez was happy with this; Mourinho likes his midfielders to be braver and to play balls towards the penalty area.
United's new manager is also obsessed with work rate. Last season he dropped and criticised Hazard in public, saying that the Belgian needed to contribute more defensively, and tapped his heart to imply Hazard needed to show more appetite for the less glorious aspects of the game. Mourinho is even less impressed by Mata's efforts when the opposition have the ball.
Mourinho previously assured Mata about his future at Old Trafford, but he did the same at Chelsea before selling. The substituting of a substitute sent out a clear message, especially given the Community Shield is a glorified friendly. In a match that did not matter, the treatment of Mata was ruthless. The player's uncharacteristically angry response, brief though it was, showed how he felt.
After the match, Mourinho was in a good mood. He was charming, mischievous and funny. He interrupted himself in the press conference to point out that a Wembley worker in the back row of the room was having a nap, suggesting that his postmatch thoughts had sent someone to sleep. It is hard not to be charmed when he is in such a convivial state of mind, unless you are one of the players experiencing the manager's disapproval.
Despite his protestations that Mata was just taking one for the team, Mourinho's words will not have made the player feel any better. As United restructure their midfield with the arrival of Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, competition for places will be intense. Despite his obvious abilities, Mata looks out of place in a Mourinho team. His job now is to emerge from this with the dignity denied him at Wembley.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.