Juan Mata will be 33 years old by the time this season’s showpiece finals are played.
And, as things stand, he will be out of contract at Manchester United too. That is providing the club don’t send official members rolling up on horseback outside his Bowdon house and, with a trumpet and a scroll, announce a new four-year deal.
That is slightly facetious, of course, given Mata has actually been one of United’s more dependable performers this season. It is not the Spaniard’s fault that he finds himself — amid Mason Greenwood’s issues and following a nigh-on disastrous summer transfer window in this regard — United’s first choice right winger.
There are several issues with this, not least Mata’s age, lack of pace and preference to operate in more central areas, which were evident against West Brom and exacerbated by Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s reluctance to come forward on the overlap, until late in the game.
It is not difficult to work out why it has come to this. You can trace it all back to that fateful summer window.
If you had told United supporters before the season started Jadon Sancho would not arrive, that no senior right-winger would be signed in his stead and that Mata would be the man holding the fort, they would surely have laughed. United don’t have the most competent recent record in the transfer market but even this scenario would be beyond parody, they would have said. Apparently not.
Okay, Greenwood made a serious name for himself on the right flank post-lockdown last season but he is a teenager and not a natural right-winger either. There was a reason the club were so eager to recruit Sancho. They needed a specialist. They still do.
Yet the refusal to pay Borussia Dortmund’s £108million asking price for the England wide man looked like a major error as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side struggled to stretch West Brom on Saturday night.
The United attack was lopsided and unbalanced, to the point that virtually every attack had to be channeled through Marcus Rashford and league debutant Alex Telles down the left. Defending is a fair bit easier, the Baggies soon discovered, when you only have to focus on one side. Left wing-back Conor Townsend could hardly believe his luck.
This is not a new problem at United. The total transfer spend in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era is edging towards the £1billion mark, depending on how you interpret the maths, but not once have the club found themselves a genuine right-winger.
Antonio Valencia won the club’s Sir Matt Busby award for his brilliant displays in the position in the 2011/12 season (that goal at Blackburn, anyone?) but since the Ecuadorian and Nani, how many right-wingers can you count?
Angel Di Maria should have been the answer, world-class talent that he was, but Louis van Gaal never played him on the right and the Argentine quickly became unsettled at United. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was about as close as it got during the Jose Mourinho years but, like Mata, he wanted to play as a No.10. There have been no shortage of attackers who favour the left side, but the right has remained that itch that United simply cannot scratch.
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Manchester United ground out a 1-0 win over West Brom to finally notch a victory at home in the Premier League this season.
It wasn’t pretty but it means two successive wins for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, who have to balance league and Champions League commitments over a busy period in the coming weeeks.
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Which is why we continue to return to Sancho. His name does not rank as high in the Google and Twitter trend charts these days, simply because United fans cannot bear to read it in transfer stories anymore, having been so disappointed with how the summer saga ended. It is understood that United have not dropped their interest and may seek a deal in January or next summer, but that did not help them against West Brom.
The fact remains that they ought to have signed a first-teamer to play on the right even if it wasn’t Sancho. They flirted with the idea of Ousmane Dembele from Barcelona but they were not prepared to pay a significant fee of any kind, preferring a loan, which did not suit the Catalans nor Dembele. In the end, they ran out of time and options.
And hence Mata got his fourth Premier League start of the season against West Brom at home. In the end, it was his ball into the box that prompted a handball from Darnell Furlong, allowing Bruno Fernandes to give United the decisive goal. But he was then replaced by Edinson Cavani and United turned to Rashford to play on his unfavoured side.
Solskjaer’s side ultimately ground out a win, but it was a game that left fans with more questions than answers. The right-wing question is perhaps the greatest mystery of them all.