It took the Red Devils an awful long time to break down a resilient Hull side riddled with injuries. Despite their problems, the Tigers made a genuine game of it. Not only defending well but also surging forward on the break. They held United at bay for almost an hour, until Juan Mata broke them.
It was a sneaky goal, but a brilliant one (and probably a little bit offside). The Spaniard is known as an elegant playmaker his style of play has changed over the past couple of months.
Mata is a facilitator: he makes his teammates better without necessarily being the focal point of things. And he scores goals. He scores goals through excellent movement and great positional instincts, just as we saw against Hull.
Pogba sprayed the ball wide to the right, a pass that bent so easily you’d think it was made of rubber. It was an outrageous pass, but Pogba was having that kind of game, spraying the ball around with so much precision.
So anyway this pass goes wide to Antonio Valencia and the Ecuadorian sends a booming cross into the back-post. Meanwhile, Mata is still just watching the ball. He’s not dropping deep to get involved as he would have done in the past. No, he’s just watching.
The cross meanwhile finally comes down out of low-earth orbit and Henrikh Mkhitaryan leaps above David Meyler and, doing his best Zlatan Ibrahimovic impression, heads it back across the face of goal.
While Valencia’s cross had come in, Mata made a dart to the near-post. He was now offside but as soon as the ball went over his head he stopped on a dime. The old Mata would have casually trotted around, but no, Mata jumped back onside (well, he tried to and only sort of made it) and as the header came across goal, his eye lit up.
The hard work had been done, all Mata had to do was take a couple of small steps forward and volley the ball into an open net. Bang, 1-0. The orange and black wall had been broken down and United were where they always want to be: winning. All thanks to Juan Mata’s newfound striker-y instincts.
Furthermore, when you think about it, Mata has never really been first-choice anything at United. He was signed almost as a PR exercise to divert attention from just how terrible David Moyes was doing at Old Trafford. It worked, of course, because everyone loves Mata, how can you not love Mata? He’s just so nice!
Despite his perennial status as a squad player, Mata has continually fought his way back into the starting line-up. He always finds ways to make himself essential – when Mourinho took charge at Old Trafford in the summer everyone assumed Mata would be first out the door, as it had been Mourinho who sold him to United from Chelsea in the first place (having barely played him for the six previous months).
But Mata is different now. Louis van Gaal saw to that. Instilling in the Spaniard the kind of defensive diligence and commitment to positional play that, far from being the luxury playmaker he sold three years ago, Mata is now a facilitator and a scorer. The goal against Hull was his 33rd for United in 129 games (for Chelsea he took 135 games to score 33 despite being a key player, taking all the set-pieces, etc.)
Mata never gets the glory or the major accolades, other players will always win the awards and take the plaudits, but United just play better football when he’s on the field. His link play is a help to his team-mates, but his positional sense and ability to pop up with decisive goals at big moments is crucial.
The playmaker was removed after 79 minutes, Mourinho undoubtedly protecting him ahead of the Liverpool game on Sunday. As he was substituted he received a standing ovation – a fitting tribute for one of Manchester United and the Premier League’s most criminally underrated players.