Why Juan Mata never quite fulfilled his potential.

With Eric Cantona the latest to join Juan Mata’s Common Goal initiative, the Mata’s off-field initiatives are clearly going according to plan. But in stark contrast, we take a look at why has his career has failed to live up to its billing.

“It’s like we live in a bubble. With respect to the rest of society, we earn a ridiculous amount. It’s unfathomable”, said Juan Mata, reflecting on his life as a football player.

The bubble he spoke about is something which everyone within and outside football is well aware of, but rarely does someone from within the fraternity speaks out which such honesty and self-awareness. It’s one of the reasons why everyone is so taken with him. Which makes his failure to reach the heights he once promised even more saddening and apparent.

But was he ever that good?

While statistics can often be moulded to our wants, the most ardent of fans will tell you Juan Mata’s stats in England, at his prime, do not lie. In 2012-13, Mata racked up 19 goals and an incredible 35 assists for Chelsea – a total of 54 goals in which he was scorer or direct provider.

He was top of the assists chart in Europe, 12 ahead of Franck Ribery. Mata had been nothing short of phenomenal and was rewarded with due recognition from his club peers, scooping up Chelsea’s player of the year award for the second season in a row.

Enter Jose Mourinho.

With Mata being dropped in favour of Oscar as Mourinho’s preferred number 10, he was finding it difficult to adapt to being a squad player. “I’m sorry I could not make him happy”, Mourinho said as Mata departed for Manchester United, just four months into Mourinho’s second coming at Chelsea.

Mata’s perceived failure in his final season at Chelsea was down to a lack of playing time. Period. Being jetted off to a traditionally attacking team in Manchester United at his prime, one could have reasonably expected him to pick up where he left off. Indeed Mata was neck-to-neck with contemporary luminaries such as David Silva in his time at Chelsea and while the City man has gone on to win a further two titles, Mata is yet to hold the coveted league trophy in his hands.

Instead, his time in Mancunia has only served to highlight the contrast between what he was at Chelsea and the shadow of that player he has been ever since. His best figures for goal involvement in the league since his move have been 9 goals – a figure he achieved in his first full season and 5 assists – a milestone he has achieved twice. Although respectable, for a player of Mata’s ilk, it is just not enough.

Tellingly, Mata’s time at United has been anything but a mixed bag. Having started off at number 10 in his first season, he was quickly moved to the sides to accommodate others and as luck would have it, has been played all over the park by coaches at United ever since.

Mata’s personality – his unassuming nature inadvertently finds it’s way into his game as well. He has no big ego(s), carries no baggage and throws no tantrums. A coach’s dream; more often than not, he does the job asked of him and does it well. It is this willingness to work for the collective cause that has cost him so dearly – at the expense of personal glory. Indeed, Jose Mourinho has never once spoken of him in critical terms in his time at United, instead calling Old Trafford Mata’s “natural habitat” and backing up his words with actions this time around as United triggered a one-year extension to his contract last season.

It is the ultimate conundrum in football thus, as a player’s best bits are the ones which have ultimately led to his failure to fulfil his complete potential. At the end of the day though, life is far more than football and Mata’s work off the pitch may create ripples extending far beyond the game.

As for his time on the pitch, one cannot help but wonder what might have been.

 

 

 

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