Juan Mata was given the chance to say his goodbyes to Manchester United fans this week with his first Premier League start of the season in the club’s final home game.
It marks the end of eight-and-a-half years at Old Trafford for Mata, who is out of contract at the end of June and set to depart the club as a free agent.
The 34-year-old, who was seen outside Old Trafford more than 90 minutes after the final whistle against Brentford signing autographs and posing for pictures with supporters in the Manchester rain, has been a popular figure since his 2014 arrival.
Mata has spent most of the season on the bench since signing a one-year extension to his contract last summer. Overall, his game time has been gradually decreasing ever since 2018.
Yet the Spaniard’s sudden appearance back in the starting lineup and surprisingly impressive performance has given fans fresh reason to wonder if he could have achieved more as a United player following what was, at the time, a club record £37.1m move from Chelsea.
Mata arrived at United having bizarrely been deemed surplus to requirements at Stamford Bridge by Jose Mourinho, despite consecutive Chelsea Player of the Year awards – he had been the best player in a team that won both the Champions League and Europa League.
Even now, there is little debate that Mata is an exceptionally talented and intelligent goalscoring attacking midfielder in the mould of fellow Spaniard and former Valencia teammate David Silva.
But while Silva, two years older, was instrumental in Manchester City winning four Premier League titles and seven domestic cups prior to his 2020 departure and is still an important player well into his 30s, the United man has won three trophies in a consistently struggling team and has been largely a fringe player since turning 30 four years ago.
A World Cup and European Championship winner with Spain in addition to his Chelsea success, Mata has arguably rarely been afforded the chance to play to his strengths at United. When the team should have been built around him at his peak in 2014 and 2015, he was often shoehorned in, while the club’s scattergraph transfer strategy failed to build a cohesive and complementary squad.
The player’s ability ensured that he was remained effective – he scored double figures in all competitions for three successive seasons from 2014 and 2017, including a famous acrobatic goal at Anfield. But when times became increasingly tougher and more naturally athletic players could better make a difference to paper over cracks – the likes of Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and later Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes – Mata’s influence quickly melted away.
Listen now to 90min's Manchester United podcast, The Promised Land, with Scott Saunders& Rob Blanchette. On this week's show they discuss whether Cristiano Ronaldo will stay at the club, the expected Old Trafford mass exodus and transfer reports about Frenkie de Jong.
At the same time across town, Silva thrived at City until the very day he left a hero aged 34. Other contributing factors have obviously also been responsible for their contrasting achievements, but considering they came from a very similar talent base to begin with it is frustrating to think about.
United could have done so much for Mata over the years and might have reaped the rewards had they had the faith in him to be the centre of everything. Instead, the overriding feeling at the end of the relationship, which has never not been utterly amicable, is underwhelming.