At the time, it was something of a nadir in Manchester United’s season. Two goals down away to Crystal Palace, their challenge for a second place finish in the Premier League looked to be fading along with their season. But at half time Jose Mourinho decided to throw on Juan Mata. It’s a move that could prove to be a watershed in United’s campaign.
Of course, with Mata on the pitch Man Utd went on to stage a second half comeback at Selhurst Park, scoring three times, including once in stoppage time, to claim a 3-2 win which, with 45 minutes played, looked highly unlikely. There were goals for Chris Smalling, Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, but the contribution of Mata was most significant.
Up until that point, Mourinho had struggled to tie his attacking line together following the January addition of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal. The Chilean is undoubtedly one of the best in the Premier League, but his signing had disrupted Man Utd’s rhythm in the final third of the pitch. They were playing like individuals, rather than a unit, in attack.
They needed someone to link everything together and that’s where Mata came in. The Spaniard subsequently started against Liverpool on Saturday, with Man Utd turning in one of their best attacking performances of the season so far in the first half. Lukaku, Sanchez and Marcus Rashford all played with fluidity and Mata was the link man between them all.
Now, Man Utd face another litmus test of their season. Mourinho’s side didn’t do enough in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 first leg against Sevilla to take a commanding leg and now with the scoreline precariously poised at 0-0, Tuesday night’s second leg presents danger for the Old Trafford side. It could go either way.
Mourinho’s natural reflex in such a scenario might be to go conservative, but that would be the wrong option for United, especially after their showing against Liverpool at the weekend. They must seek to control the match while making the most of their attacking threat. Paul Pogba is expected to miss out once again through injury and so Mourinho must turn to Mata.
The Spaniard carries a goal threat of his own, but it’s ability as a pass-master and an occupier of space that means Manchester United must field Mata against Sevilla. Often under appreciated, the 29-year-old has become a key figure at Old Trafford over the past week or so, not because of what he can do on the pitch as an individual, but because of what he can do for others on the pitch. For his teammates.
This is something that has become apparent to many recently, including Gary Neville, who said: “There’s signs in the last two games that there’s a team there and Juan Mata’s become more important to connect the team.” He went on to describe the Spaniard as the “glue” holding Man Utd together. Mourinho must see that too.
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