Juan Mata produced his best performance to date in a Manchester United shirt in the crucial 2-1 win away to Liverpool last March, a result which sparked United’s push for a top four place.
However in the corresponding fixture this season the little Spaniard was restricted to a cameo appearance from the bench after Louis van Gaal favoured the exuberance of Jesse Lingard.
Mata replaced the young Englishman and played a hand in United’s smash and grab win at Anfield last Sunday but the jury is still out on the former Chelsea man and question marks continue to be raised about his long-term credentials as an Old Trafford player.
When handed a starting berth Mata continues to be deployed in an unfamiliar false right wing role but due to United’s number eight desire to get involved and be creative he often drifts inside: as a result Van Gaal’s side lose their width.
United arguably conjured up their best attacking display of the season against Newcastle United with Mata having to settle for the role of onlooker.
Wayne Rooney was back to his best in the game at St James’ Park and thrived off the speed and movement on the counter attack which was highlighted in United’s second goal through Lingard.
Ander Herrera produced a glittering display in an advanced role and showed great understanding with Anthony Martial, Rooney and Lingard.
Van Gaal selected the same front four against their arch rivals and will most probably field an unchanged quartet ahead of the Southampton clash.
Mata being dropped may be deemed harsh considering he has amassed an impressive return of 21 goals and 16 assists in the 81 Premier League games played during his time with the 20-time champions, but on too many occasions the former Chelsea man flatters to deceive.
Manchester United’s DNA has been built on attacking football with pace and power, which Mata unfortunately does not fit into.
With Van Gaal reluctant to field the Spaniard in his favoured position his time at Old Trafford could be reviewed in the summer.
Van Gaal has already stated his desire to embed more speed into the wide positons and with Adnan Januzaj being recalled from Borussia Dortmund, Mata will have to contend with the added competition for places.
Mata had a greater influence at Chelsea when he won back-to-back player of the year awards as the creative hub of the team, playing a starring role in helping Roman Abramovich clinch the elusive Champions League.
The diminutive Spaniard accumulated 32 goals in 135 appearances during his time at Stamford Bridge but it was his 58 assists which highlighted his moments of inspiration for The Blues.
David Moyes forked out £37.1m to bring Mata to Old Trafford from Chelsea two years ago, with Jose Mourinho deciding the former Valencia midfielder lacked the physicality and work ethic to cut it in his side.
Under Moyes the Red Devils were enduring a torrid time and the loss of Sir Alex Ferguson wounded the club deeply.
But Moyes was desperate to make a statement, hence the hefty sum paid to secure the signature of Mata and despite United already possessing Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa in the number ten role, Mata arrived in a private jet eager to prove Mourinho wrong and become United’s saviour.
Mata scored six Premier League goals and carved out five assists in 15 games for United under the stewardship of Moyes and a brief caretaker role from Ryan Giggs.
In Van Gaal’s debut season Mata scored nine Premier League goals and four assists however, at one stage, he only received a measly 36 minutes across six games as he failed to impress his Dutch manager.
United started the 2015/16 campaign positively and it wasn’t a surprise that Mata was at the heart of United’s good form, the Spanish international manufacturing three goals and four assists from the first seven league games.
Nevertheless since then the mercurial number eight has registered one solitary goal, a penalty against West Bromwich Albion back in early November.
Mata’s reputation in world football grew rapidly due to his ability to carve out moments of creativity and inventiveness but he has not produced an assist for Manchester United in the Premier League since late September which, for a man of his calibre, is a worrying return.
Mata is too pedestrian in possession, there is no questioning he still has the ability to conjure up moments of creative brilliance but unlike David Silva and Mesut Ozil when the chips are down he goes missing.
Silva has been blighted with injuries this season but has still amassed eight assists in 14 games, Ozil on the other hand is on course to break Thierry Henry’s record of assists in a Premier League season.
The French forward produced 20 assists in the 2002/03 season but Ozil currently has 16 and has earned a record of his own: the influential German holds the record for most consecutive Premier League matches assisted in, the former Real Madrid man assisted in seven straight games (26 September to 21 November 2015).
The Old Trafford faithful are becoming disgruntled with Mata’s inability to replicate his form, which was ever so apparent during his Stamford Bridge day’s pre Mourinho.
Furthermore with Van Gaal failing to budge from his stance that Mata plays on the right, fans are starting to realise why Mourinho became frustrated and cashed in the luxury man.
Image courtesy of Laureus, with thanks.