Belfast Telegraph

Mata in groove as he finds magic touch under Van Gaal

By Tim Rich

All footballers are vulnerable when a new manager arrives but Juan Mata would have felt a little more vulnerable than most.

He had come to Manchester United on board a helicopter in the January transfer window of last year just when David Moyes' regime was starting to slide badly and the banner on the Stretford End proclaiming Sir Alex Ferguson's successor to be "The Chosen One" was beginning to look an embarrassment.

Mata was a huge statement of intent. He had won the World Cup with Spain, he had won the European Cup with Chelsea, he had a silken touch. He would stop the slide, but the slide gathered pace and, three months after his arrival, the man who had paid a club record £37m for his services had been relieved of his duties.

Louis van Gaal, who succeeded Moyes, is famously no respecter of reputations.

When he said early in his first season that he was quite capable of dropping Angel Di Maria or Radamel Falcao, despite the fact that one cost £59m and the other was being paid £265,000 a week, nobody believed him - until the teamsheets began being handed out at Old Trafford.

Van Gaal could easily have consigned Mata to the wilderness but he did not. The Spanish midfielder flourished.

"Every manager has his own way of working and with him it was more different than it was with any other manager," says Mata ahead of United's home clash with Sunderland today (3pm).

"He said when he arrived that it was going to be difficult, especially at the beginning, but it is all about time and getting used to his way of working. I am talking about the number of meetings, the training sessions and the games.

"It is true that when a new manager comes to a club everyone starts from zero but I am quite happy with everything that is happening to me because I have a lot in common with his way of playing football." Van Gaal's way was never better demonstrated than in United's third goal at Southampton last Sunday, finishing off a move that contained 45 separate passes.

"That was a great example of having possession with meaning," Mata says. "It wasn't just possession for possession's sake. It was a great example of how to manage the situation when you are winning away."

It was a victory that was settled by two goals from Anthony Martial, the teenager from Monaco signed for a fee of £36m that even Van Gaal thought steep but who has now found the net in his first two league games for United. Only two others have done that and Martial might be better than either Louis Saha or Ian Storey-Moore.

"If you come from France to England, you would normally need time to settle down - and then there is the fact he is 19," says Mata. "I can tell you as a Manchester United player how big this club is and how you feel the repercussions of everything you do. It happens to everyone. It happened to me when I came. It is all about not thinking about the transfer fee or the pressure, just performing well and doing your job - and he is doing that."

He admits he is glad David De Gea did not leave for Real Madrid because who else would he beat at table tennis - Mata is an expert at the sport. The music in the dressing room is "whatever Ashley Young puts on" and he does not hesitate when asked to name the best footballer he has played alongside. "Andres Iniesta".

They won the World Cup together. "Winning the World Cup is something that will always be inside your mind and inside your body," he says later. "Football is not about money but emotions. The day after we won it in South Africa was one of the most special days I have lived in my life."

Belfast Telegraph


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