Timing has always been one of the stronger suits of Juan Mata’s game and as Manchester United’s 10-week search for a right-winger enters its frantic final stages he has picked his moment to remind everyone of his best form brilliantly.
Mata isn’t the type to raise an eyebrow at the situation but if he did it would be a raised eyebrow full of style. While his fellow Spanish playmaker David Silva was venerated on his departure from the Premier League this summer you get the feeling Mata could move quietly back to Spain without much of a tribute at all.
He might have become something of an archaic throwback in his nine years in English football but he still has the ability to run a game when it is played to his strengths.
He’s clearly not a similar player to Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho or Ousmane Dembele, but he must surely still have a role to play in this United squad. It would be a travesty if a player of his ability just drifted to the periphery, rolled out for the odd cup tie and little else. Over the last two weeks the 32-year-old has proved he can still influence games, helping United past the challenges of Luton Town and now Brighton.
Without him United may not have been in the hat for Thursday’s Carabao Cup quarter-final draw. Mata was the bright light in a performance that only hit the high notes late on, although it got there, unlike Saturday’s visit to the same venue.
In a summer of staycations United have been regular visitors to this particular stretch of the coast and while they’ve not had the weather for strolls along Brighton Pier, they’ve had the results to tempt them back to Sussex By The Sea.
Having had to deal with a biting wind on Saturday it was sporadic downpours that would have made the Shipping Forecast a must listen to any boats trying to navigate the English Channel just off the South Coast on Wednesday night.
The rain was torrential at times and with no fans to brighten up a damp occasion it wasn’t conducive to a memorable game of football.
But it did see United into the quarter-finals of another cup competition.
Solskjaer knows the importance of silverware to this club and while his team fell at the final fences last season, his record in cup competitions is good, which is something of an anomaly considering his justified complaints about a lack of depth in his squad.
This was the 20th cup match United have won since Solskjaer’s arrival and they’ve made at least the quarter-finals of all six cup competitions they’ve either entered under him or still been in when he replaced Jose Mourinho.
None of those appearances in the latter stages have resulted in a final, however, something which is likely to continue unless United get to work on strengthening this squad before Monday.
The United second-string have done their bit to remind Solskjaer of their abilities though.
They began by seeing plenty of the ball at the Amex, particularly through Fred and Scott McTominay, with the Brazilian a force when trying to press Brighton as they played out from the back and the Scot a constant vocal presence on the pitch, with barely a quiet moment for his teammates.
With Odion Ighalo remaining central the onus was on United’s other attackers to provide the movement, a task Mata relished. The Spaniard was listed on the left on the pre-match graphic that was a cursory starting position when the ball was dead and little else.
Mata drifted across the pitch throughout and he was at the heart of the first big chance, speeding up a patient attack with a pass into Brandon Williams, who returned the ball into Mata as he entered space vacated by Daniel James’ clever run. Ighalo lost his balance as he attempted to finish from Mata’s final pass.
United were solid defensively, with Dean Henderson called on to make a low save from Alireza Jahanbakhsh, but until Mata got on the ball they lacked a cutting edge in a game.
The man of the match in last week’s win at Luton Town was again pulling the strings and he was heavily involved in breaking the deadlock just before half-time. It was Mata’s driving run that won a foul from Dan Burn and he picked himself up to send in a teasing ball that Scott McTominay headed beyond Jason Steele, with Eric Bailly also queing up to try and add the finishing touch.
The timing of the goal was vital to United, just as it had been on Saturday when they got back into the game before the break.
This time it gave them something to hold on to and they needed it in a second half that saw them pushed back.
It wasn’t until midway through the half that Brighton finally tested Henderson, who was again equal to the challenge, making a superb point-blank save to deny Leandro Trossard, who must wonder what he has to do score against United, having hit the woodwork three times on Saturday.
That saw Solskjaer turn to Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford and, just as was the case at Luton, the changes ended the cup tie.
It was Mata, fittingly, that sealed victory. He was involved in the move that led to his goal three or four times as he drifted across the pitch, before a touch full of class from Donny van de Beek sent him into the area to finish.
All that remained was for Pogba, looking sharper than he had so far this season, to finish the job, thumping in a 25-yard free-kick that was aided by a deflection.
The World Cup winner enjoyed a delighted embrace with Van de Beek at the final whistle, the midfielder tipped to take his place at some point, reminding Solskjaer of the star quality he does have in this squad, a rank Mata can still reach when at his best.