Juan Mata made his 200th Premier League on Saturday and marked it with a goal as Manchester United swept aside pointless and goalless Crystal Palace at Old Trafford.
In his seventh season in England, Mata appears to be more crucial than ever to his manager’s plans.
Despite everyone presuming that Jose Mourinho would dispense with the Spaniard when he took over last summer, having already done so when he returned to Chelsea in 2013-14, Mata made the eighth highest number of starts in the United squad last season, playing the 10th highest number of minutes.
This term, the only Premier League game he has not started was the only one the Red Devils failed to win.
At least Mata – who has scored 46 goals and provided 43 assists in the Premier League – knew what to expect and what he would have to do to earn Mourinho’s trust the second time around.
Prior to being sold by Chelsea to United, the manager suggested Mata needed to adapt to a wide role, with Oscar preferred through the middle, and work harder defensively.
Mata’s humility and intelligence enabled him to take the warning on board, and despite his traits appearing to make him more suited to a central role, the 29-year-old has become Mourinho’s first-choice right-sided attacker.
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That adaptability has certainly helped him to reach Saturday’s landmark. Mata has played almost equally through the middle, where he has spent 42% of his playing time, and on the right, in the position Mourinho relies upon him, where 43% of his 14,615 minutes have come. The left-footed schemer has been shunted out to the left flank only 30 times, of which 25 have been from the start.
Despite becoming a Premier League stalwart, Mata has never been more productive than during his first two seasons in England. Under Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo and then Rafael Benitez, he averaged nine goals and 12.5 assists, with 2012-13 being his best season, statistically at least.
Di Matteo brought Mata in off the left wing and gave him a central role, with Benitez continuing that approach. Playing off the striker, Mata scored 12 goals – his highest ever tally – and created another dozen, which was only one fewer than the previous season but still more than anyone else in the Premier League.
He also had an average of two shots per game and made 2.3 key passes per game – both career highs – and made an average of 52.5 passes, which was only bettered during his first half-season at United after he was signed by David Moyes.
None of that was enough to convince Mourinho to trust Mata in a central role and his output plummeted upon the Portuguese’s return to Stamford Bridge. In the middle, Mata is certainly more creative, recording 26 assists – one every 230 minutes, compared to one every 396 minutes on the right.
Mata’s goalscoring contribution is better from a wide-right position, however, with the former Valencia star netting every 288 minutes, compared to a goal every 332 minutes when played through the middle.
The Spaniard was at his most creative during his time at Chelsea. Over two and a half seasons, he contributed an average of 10.8 assists per season, compared to 4.6 assists per season at Manchester United prior to the start of the current campaign.
At Old Trafford, though, Mata has a marginally better scoring ratio. For United, he has averaged 7.7 goals per season, compared to 7.2 at Chelsea.
Since being the Premier League’s most creative force in 2012-13, Mata has not come close to repeating that contribution. Indeed, during his three full seasons at Old Trafford, an average of 37 players have recorded more assists during each of those campaigns.
But Mata remains one of Mourinho’s trusted lieutenants, even if he is not one of the six “chosen ones” – David De Gea, Antonio Valencia, Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Henrikh Mkhitaryan – identified by Daley Blind’s father Danny at the weekend.
Mourinho was keen to bring in a player who can “play through the wings” but given Ivan Perisic was most courted, it seems Mourinho was more concerned with squeezing more out of the left side rather than Mata’s right-wing spot.
With 200 Premier League games under his belt at the age of 29, the question now is how many more Mata will add to his name before the end of his career.