Alex Telles barely spent a training session in Juan Mata’s company and they boarded separate coaches to St James’ Park, but quickly warmed to his new teammate in the wintry north-east. Telles and his fellow Manchester United substitutes were brought to their feet in added time and put their hands together when Mata’s number flashed up.
Even from the sixth floor of the Milburn Stand the cries of mago were audible. Mata could barely suppress his amusement at the applause and would have been forgiven for bowing in front of his approving teammates. Some of the United dignitaries in the directors’ box – one of whom could not locate the away end at Old Trafford – sycophantically applauded as though they were at the theatre and about to throw bouquets.
Next year marks the 10th anniversary of Mata’s arrival in England and he still affects Premier League games. Newcastle was manna of heaven for Mata: conservative, reticent and dependent on breakaways. United were always bound to hog the ball and Mata was always going to start in the absence of Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani (as well as the unexpected absence of Mason Greenwood).
Mata’s efficacy will make Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wonder whether he should be accommodated in such fixtures even with a full roster of forwards to choose from. There is merit in retaining Mata against the Gaullacticos of Paris Saint-Germain, though Martial’s availability and the pedigree of the opposition may reduce Mata to his game-changing role off the bench.
Some United fans questioned whether Mata should be an automatic pick against Newcastle, unconvinced by his roles in mundane Carabao Cup wins. With Mata, it’s not the years, it’s the mileage. Jose Mourinho’s last great triumphs as United manager were sparked by Mata free-kicks against Newcastle and Juventus two years ago and Mata made the difference in the Europa League quarter-final win against Copenhagen in August.
Solskjaer warmly embraced Mata as he strode past the white line on Saturday, heavily indebted to the 32-year-old for giving him some respite after a worrying start. The United forwards responded purposefully to Luke Shaw’s second-minute own goal and the interplay between Mata and Bruno Fernandes was encouraging prior to the Portuguese’s speared strike that was disallowed.
If a tactical teamsheet was provided then Mata would have been positioned on the right wing, though he was anything but a right winger. His average position was more central and Fernandes and Daniel James were the most frequent recipients of Mata’s range.
Mata’s passing was a staggeringly accurate 92 per cent and nine balls were threaded into the final third. His set-piece prowess extended to the cross that Harry Maguire converted – just the second goal United have scored directly from a corner on Solskjaer’s watch. Maguire made a beeline for Mata and their reactions were suitably tempered for a mere equaliser.
Excluding Fernandes’s strike the Video Assistant Referee chalked off, another Mata corner was met by Maguire and Mata engineered an opening for James. His contribution for the counter-attacking winner – one touch to control and the second to release Marcus Rashford – was just as pivotal a pass as Rashford’s reverse assist for Fernandes.
The most aesthetic aspect were the seven slick passes shared by Mata, Fernandes and Donny van de Beek – three playmakers hitting all their cues to spring Rashford into the left-hand channel. Van de Beek, showing he possesses steel as much as silk, made Jonjo Shelvey look timid in gaining control of the ball before exchanging a one-two with Fernandes and finding Mata, mindful of his surroundings enough to check his run with Jamal Lewis breathing down his neck.
United’s spiel about their recruitment reboot fobbed off reporters and supporters but Fernandes and Van de Beek are in the 23-28 age bracket, tick the ‘humble and respectful’ boxes, and fit the ‘X-factor’ criteria Ed Woodward craves. Mata, 25 and world-class at the time of his record club arrival in January 2014, is maybe the prototype for United’s younger playmaker recruits.
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Van de Beek and Mata dovetailed dexterously at Brighton last month and the Dutchman rhapsodized about his new teammate: “He is so creative and (gives) amazing passes. He can play one-touch, which is also what I like, and I think we have a good combination on the pitch.” Mata was on the same wavelength in his own debrief.
“He’s a very clever player,” Mata enthused of Van de Beek. “I love playing with him because he finds pockets, spaces. He understands football in a way that I like, which is playing one-twos, passing and moving, and the goal was like that.” An Ajax employee quote-tweeted Mata’s summary and cooed: “Makes my heart warm.”
Solskjaer overlooked Mata for the first two league matches with Crystal Palace and Brighton as he reported late to training after quarantining, before he was recalled to the bench against Tottenham. He has to be accommodated in any squad, at the expense of any player, and having triggered Paul Pogba’s one-year option the next contract that needs extending is Mata’s.