When it was announced that Manchester United had renewed Juan Mata’s contract for another year, there were cheers and moans from the fans.
The Spain playmaker has seen less and less playing time since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s arrival in December 2018, with age and lack of speed reducing his chances of playing regularly, especially given the high style. intensity that the manager wanted to impose.
In his first full season under Solskjaer, he made 37 appearances in all competitions, but only 19 in the Premier League. It was the least Mata had played for United in a season since the 2013/14 season, where he made 15 after joining in January.
Last season he gained even less playing time, making just 18 appearances in all competitions and just nine in the Premier League, although personal circumstances and injuries played a role. It’s fair to say, however, that fans unhappy with Mata’s contract extension were right.
But judging by the recent transfers the club have made with Jadon Sancho joining Amad and Facundo Pellistri as first-team strikers, Mata’s renewal was far more than he offered on the pitch.
Youngsters Shola Shoretire, Hannibal Mejbri and Anthony Elanga were also called up to Solskjaer’s senior squad at the end of last season and in pre-season this summer. And it’s their development that Mata can help in this final year of his time at United.
Ignore the fact that he has only scored 15 goals in his last 127 appearances for United and remember what he has done throughout his career.
He won the Copa Del Rey with Valencia as a young attacking midfielder, he went on to become one of the best playmakers in the world at Chelsea. His best season came in the 2012/13 campaign as he scored 19 goals and 35 assists in a campaign that saw the Blues end without a trophy and change managers midway through.
He then joined United during the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era and has managed to be a strong performer in a team that has struggled for consistency.
The second half of his United career has seen him gradually withdraw from the starting squad and rely more on a leader, and that’s what this new deal represents.
United’s average age in their first-team last season was 26.8, with Mata being the team’s second-oldest outfield behind Edinson Cavani. Interestingly, Cavani was also given a one-year extension at the end of last season, although his production on the pitch was significantly higher than Mata’s.
But where we have seen the Spaniard the most in recent seasons is in cup competitions, where Solskjaer tends to play his marginal players and youngsters. He’s by their side to guide them and help them understand what it takes to be a top player at the highest level because he’s been there and done it.
This season, Mata is expected to spend even less time on the pitch than last year, but he’s no longer in the squad just to play. He’s here to lead by example and use his experience to help propel the next generation to be fit for life on the senior team.
Players like Hannibal, Shoretire and Amad probably won’t see as much playing time as they ideally would like this season, but they will need to be prepared if and when called upon. The best way to be prepared is to prepare with the best. Mata is one of the best professionals there is.
He’s rarely injured, always behaves at a relatively good level, and he has a moment of magic in him with that wand on his left foot.
United have a lot of talented players without him to have a successful season, but it’s what Mata does off the pitch this season that could be most important for the club.