Why Mata is no small matter to coach Mourinho

Juan Mata [Photo: Courtesy]

Juan Mata is the stone that the builders rejected, but one which has now become the cornerstone of Manchester United team.

When coach José Mourinho returned to Stamford Bridge in 2013, Mata was the club’s star

— he had been voted Player of the Year two seasons in a row.

He however struggled to earn a spot in the new manager’s lineups and by January 2014 he was shipped off to Old Trafford

— here he became a favourite of the fans.

Then the inevitable happened

— Manchester United hired Mourinho, a man who rejected Mata at Chelsea. Mat’s problems were compounded by the arrival of midfield imports of Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Many, including Mata, may have assumed that he would once again be outcast, yet he has persevered and has become one of the most reliable players in the squad.

Interestingly, it was Mata who came up with a much needed winner when they faced Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in October 2016. This came just days after Mourinho lost 4-0 in the hands of Chelsea.

Then came his sublime finish in the New Year when he struck home to give Manchester United the lead against hapless Westham.

And it was certainly a happier New Year for Mata than this time three years ago when in 2014 Mourinho controversially substituted the Spaniard for Chelsea at Southampton on New Year’s day.

The normally mild mannered midfielder was furious and the animated Mata vented his displeasure as he dressed on the bench. It was his last match for Chelsea before his transfer window move to Old Trafford.

At West Ham Mata started on the bench but he was the ace up Mourinho’s sleeve on this occasions as he shook his sluggish Reds up at half time.

Eighteen minutes later and the tactical switch paid off as Mata stroked in the Reds breakthrough against 10-man West Ham.

Up to Mata’s entrance United had never looked like they were keen to keep the high tempo play or creativity that has formed the backbone of their winning run and was prevalent in the drama against Middlesbrough.

Maybe it was the London Stadium atmosphere that is so flat. But United reflected that and went back to Louis van Gaal mode in the first half. Lots of possession and precious little done with it.

Even the gift of the Hammers being reduced to ten men, when Sofiane Feghouli was sent off for a challenge on Phil Jones after 14 minutes, failed to spark the Reds.

Referee Mike Dean’s decision, that split observers, pumped up Slaven Bilic’s side when it should have seen United step up and hurt them.

Mourinho’s game changers Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan couldn’t stamp their authority and you had to remind yourself West Ham were one man light.

Were it not for David de Gea, celebrating his 250th United appearance, it could have been very embarrassing before the interval.

It is now clear why Mourinho, in what seems to be higligint a shift in their relationship, said: “I need Mata more here than I did at Chelsea.”

The future is, therefore, bright for Mata, who will look to add several more top performances to the many he has already.

It wasn’t United at their best level but the momentum of a six-game winning Premier League run gets you points when you are having a below par day.