If they handed out trophies for holding a grudge there’s little doubt by the end of the season Jose Mourinho would be sat at the front of an open top bus, parading through town with enough silverware to keep Tiffany’s in business for a decade.
While whether the manager is losing his mojo somewhat has been the subject of near-constant debate ever since the had the temerity to win only two major trophies in his first season at Old Trafford, the one ‘talent’ no-one can deny Mourinho still has in abundance is his ability to fall out with players quicker than it takes David Moyes to claim he should have been given more time at United.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re the big money signing or the previous season’s player of the year, Mourinho will drop, ignore and publicly lambast you to the world’s media for so much as a misplaced throw-in if he feels you’ve let the team, or more importantly, the manager down.
Luke Shaw, Bastian Schweinsteiger and even Henrikh Mkhitaryan have found themselves falling from Mourinho’s favour, with such outrages as getting injured, a poor derby performance and being a well-respected German legend as reasons for being shunned to the abyss of the reserves.
More recently it appears that Juan Mata may have found himself on the manager’s naughty list for a mistake against Huddersfield that led to the Terriers opening goal in their shock win over the Reds, a goal which came with more than an hour left to play in the game, although the Spaniard would only last until the interval when he was subbed, probably after suffering the sort of half-time rollicking that made Sir Alex’s hairdryer seem like a trip to Santa’s Grotto.
Mata may have played in the Champions League since the Huddersfield defeat, featuring for just over an hour against the worst Benfica side in history, but he’s not been seen in the league since just 17 minutes after his error at the Kirklees, something which call me a cynic, doesn’t seem like a coincidence.
The real question isn’t whether Jose has looked upon Mata less favourably since the Huddersfield debacle, it’s whether he’s right to – and the answer is a resounding no!
For reasons that often baffle me Mata seems to have become persona non grata among many Reds, with such comments as “he gets United, but that’s not enough” leveled at the player who induces anger for having a genuine affinity with the fans that haven’t turned on him and spending time and even his own money on those who are less fortunate.
If you want to criticise Mata’s performance that’s one thing, but beating him over the head with the “just cos you care doesn’t make you good enough” stick often strikes me as nonsensical, the two are completely separate, yet it’s the same argument we used to hear from Patrice Evra’s detractors when he was deemed to have failed to maintain his high standards at Old Trafford.
Whether a player ‘gets’ United or not is about a relevant as whether a player prefers Christian Bale’s Batman to Ben Affleck’s or which Gallagher brother they’d most like to punch, when it comes to Mata, he should be praised or criticised on the back of his performances, and not just this seasons, it’s almost as if people have forgotten some of the vital goals, magical passes and superb performances we’ve seen from our former record signing since he joined the Reds.
Right now it’s easy to look at Mata as being the ‘weak link’ in a United side that earlier in the campaign saw quick counter-attacking football, with fast, strong, skilful players such as Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Mkhitaryan helped the Reds sweep all before them.
Mata looks like the small boy that’s been brought along by one of the dads for a kickabout with the working men’s team, his diminutive size at odds with the new powerhouse ethos the team appeared to be adapting, where there’s no room for a pip squeak who can’t shrug off the challenge of a burly defender while breaking a European sprinting record en route to a goal.
Yet in some fans eagerness to see an all-powerful speedy attacking force, the dismissal of what Mata can bring to the side may have been a tad hasty, especially when we factor in the worrying demise of Mkhitaryan, a player who’s been the manager’s choice in the number 10 position which has often been out of Mata’s reach.
Mkhitaryan was one of the league’s most productive players in his first five games, bagging five assists and a goal, even those who doubted the level of his performances couldn’t argue with the stats which proved why Jose had decided to place his faith in him when many were wondering if there was room for the former Dortmund man in a team full of attacking players who all coveted the position he now found himself in.
Since those halcyon days of mid-September, Mkhitaryan’s form hasn’t so much deserted him as emigrated to another continent without so much as a Dear John letter. The Armenian international looks a shadow of his former self, which may sound a bit bonkers considering his “former self” is the one that was playing six league games ago, but his ineffectiveness can no longer be ignored.
It’s no coincidence that Mkhitaryan’s fall from grace has coincided with United’s lack of attacking prowess, the first five games yielding 16 goals for the Red machine which is in danger of grinding to a halt after a return of just seven goals in six games, a paltry return when you consider four of those goals came in one game against a hapless Palace team whose players were probably still coming to terms with the fact Roy Hodgson was now telling them what to do.
As the Beatles once sang “when I find myself in times of trouble, he comes back from injury, the crazy-haired Paul Pogba, let it be” or words to that effect, as almost every Red now looks towards the French international as the man to turn things around – and with some justification.
It’s not as though Pogba is a fringe squad member well past his best, like Michael Carrick, or even a somewhat clumsy midfielder many Reds would happily loan out to our rivals – although not me if I’m being honest- like Maroaune Fellaini.
Pogba is one of the best midfielders in the world, he really is, that’s why he helped Juventus get the Champions League final, that’s why he was wanted by City and that’s why he cost more than the likes of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo – okay yes the market has inflated since then, but you get my drift – and to add insult to his injury he was actually in the best form of his United career just before he limped off against FC Basel, with two goals and two assists in four league games, the sort of return he was signed to deliver.
The smart money is on Pogba to return and fill the void that will be created by the misfiring Mkhitaryan making way, but that may not necessarily be the case, as Pogba could line up alongside Nemanja Matic in a two man central midfield as he did at the start of the campaign.
Mata could operate just off Lukaku with Pogba and Matic behind him and Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford on either side, an attacking quartet that would have the mix of pace, power, skill but with the Spaniard in the mix, in his preferred position, a touch of vision that few others possess.
The argument against Mata, as mentioned earlier, is he’s not quick enough for United’s ‘new’ style of play and while I can understand the concerns with him out on the wing, in the centre his lack of pace, which is overstated anyway, isn’t much of a hindrance as he can go about what he does best picking out the through balls that could finally play to Lukaku’s strengths.
If Pogba isn’t ready for the next month or if he is, there’s a place for Mata, just off the striker, if Pogba does return and for the tougher games, Mourinho decides he wants two holding midfielders just behind the former Juve man, then it could mean the only place left for Mata is out on the wing, but in a system that sees the full backs getting forward, that shouldn’t necessarily spell the end of the former Chelsea favourite’s influence.
It’s obvious Jose Mourinho has a lot to think about during the next two weeks, but if he’s looking for a way to get United back to the sort of free flowing football that had the fans drooling at the start of the season, maybe rather than persisting with Mkhitaryan or waiting for Pogba – or even Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s return to solve all his problems, he should stop sulking with him and give a player more than capable of unlocking defences, the chance to do just that, before it’s too late.