Alex Telles barely spent a training session at Juan Mata’s company, and they boarded separate buses to St. James’ Park, but quickly warmed up for his new teammate in the wintry northeast. Telles and his Manchester United counterparts were brought to their feet in added time and put their hands together when Mata’s number flashed.
Even from the sixth floor of the Milburn stood the screams of magician were audible. Mata could hardly suppress his amusement at the applause and could have bowed to his appreciative teammates. Some of the United States dignitaries in the directors box – one of whom couldn’t find the away game at Old Trafford – applauded sycophantically as if they were in the theater throwing bouquets of flowers.
Next year Mata will be in England for the 10th time and he is still influencing Premier League games. For Mata, Newcastle was the manna of heaven: conservative, reserved and dependent on outliers. United have always been required to play the ball and Mata would always start in the absence of Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani (as well as the unexpected absence of Mason Greenwood).
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Mata’s effectiveness will make Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wonder if he should be placed in games like this, even with a full list of strikers to choose from. It is a merit to hold Mata against them Gaullacticos from Paris Saint-Germain, although Martial’s availability and opposition pedigree could reduce Mata to his pioneering role from the bank.
Some United fans wondered if Mata should be an automatic choice against Newcastle, not convinced of his role in everyday Carabao Cup wins. At Mata, it’s not the years, but the mileage. Jose Mourinho’s last major triumphs as United coach were sparked by Mata free kicks against Newcastle and Juventus two years ago, and Mata made the difference in the Europa League quarter-final win against Copenhagen in August.
Solskjaer gave Mata a warm hug as he walked past the white line on Saturday. He was deeply indebted to the 32-year-old for giving him a break after a worrying start. United strikers were determined to respond to Luke Shaw’s own goal in the second minute and the match between Mata and Bruno Fernandes was encouraging before the Portuguese javelin was denied.
If a tactical team sheet had been made available, Mata would have been positioned on the right wing even though he was anything but a right winger. His average position was more central, and Fernandes and Daniel James were the most frequent recipients of Mata’s range.
Mata’s pass was amazingly accurate and 92 percent and nine balls were threaded into the final third. His prowess continued until the cross that turned Harry Maguire – just the second goal United scored straight from a corner on Solskjaer’s watch. Maguire made his way to Mata and her reactions were moderately tempered for mere compensation.
With the exception of Fernandes’ hit, which the video assistant referee copied, Maguire hit another Mata corner and Mata opened an opening for James. His contribution to the opposing winner – one touch to control and the second to release Marcus Rashford – was as crucial a pass as Rashford’s reverse assistant was for Fernandes.
The most aesthetic aspect was the seven slick passes from Mata, Fernandes and Donny van de Beek – three playmakers who all hit their cues to get Rashford into the left channel. Van de Beek, showing he owns both steel and silk, made Jonjo Shelvey look shy as he gained control of the ball before trading a one-two with Fernandes and finding Mata, aware of his surroundings, to checking his run with Jamal Lewis his neck.
United’s game of restarting recruiting has put reporters and supporters off, but Fernandes and Van de Beek, between 23 and 28 years old, tick the “humble and respectful” boxes and meet the “X-Factor” criteria, Ed Woodward longs for. Mata, 25, who was world class when he arrived at the record club in January 2014, may be the prototype for United’s younger playmaker recruits.
Van de Beek and Mata teamed up well in Brighton last month and the Dutchman raved about his new team-mate: “He’s so creative and (gives) amazing passes. He can play one-touch, which I like too and I think , we have a good combination on the pitch. “Mata was on the same wavelength in his own debriefing.
“He’s a very smart player,” said Mata of Van de Beek. “I love to play with him because he finds pockets and spaces. He understands football the way I like it, which is playing in pairs, passing and moving, and the goal was like that.” An Ajax employee quoted Mata’s summary with a quote and cooed, “Warm my heart.”
Solskjaer overlooked Mata in the first two league games with Crystal Palace and Brighton when he reported late for training after quarantine before being called back on the bench against Tottenham. He must be placed in any squad at the expense of each player. After Paul Pogba’s one-year option is triggered, Mata’s next contract must be renewed.