Mata: a born winner and worthy Arsenal target

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The Independent Online

Juan Mata scores very well on the Arsène Wenger index: lightweight, under 6ft tall, technically gifted, young enough for the Arsenal manager to refer to him as "still young", intelligent both on and off the pitch and not over-priced. But before Arsenal fans groan collectively that this is the recipe for more entertaining failure, half hoping that they are beaten to the punch by one of the 23-year-old's other Premier League suitors, the footnote is that Mata is a winner – always has been.

In the summer he was one of the stars of Spain's Under-21 European Championship triumph in Denmark. In his first season in Valencia's first team he helped them win the Spanish Cup, scoring twice in the semi-final victory over Barcelona. He was a league winner coming through Real Madrid's youth system and last summer he was surrounded by the ultimate winners as he was part of the squad which won the World Cup.

Arsenal's six years without a trophy calls for a revolution but Wenger knows it cannot be a style change; it has to be a mentality makeover and if Mata breezes into the Emirates Stadium this summer he will do so with all the brash confidence of a kid who walked out on Real aged just 19 because he didn't believe their faith in him matched his faith in himself.

"I like English football – it's direct, more physical and there is a greater intensity," he told El Pais in 2009 in an article headlined "The 21-year-old Veteran", a neat summing-up of how Spain sees the Valencia No 10 – who made his debut in those victorious World Cup finals and then went back to the Under-21s this summer to play the role of senior squad member as they emulated the success of the senior side.

Last season he captained Valencia to third place in La Liga. They finished 21 points behind second-placed Real Madrid but it could have been much worse in what was their first campaign after selling David Silva and David Villa. Silva is perhaps the player Mata most resembles. The two played together in the Canary Islander's final season at the Mestalla, dovetailing effortlessly in a fluid line of three attacking midfielders deployed behind Villa.

Only four players finished with more assists than Mata last season and three of those played for either Barcelona or Real Madrid. He scored eight goals, taking his club tally to 33, picking up the baton laid down by Villa and Silva, and now Valencia have to sell him, too.

They have a debt of over £300m and, unlike Barcelona, the value of their squad and their commercial pulling-power cannot offset the financial burden. The construction crisis has left them with an old stadium they cannot sell and a new one they cannot finish building.

If the longest-running transfer saga in history finally comes to an end this summer, and Barcelona get their man, can Mata replace Cesc Fabregas? The answer is yes and no. References to Mata as a midfielder are misleading. He would struggle as a box-to-box player in the middle of a 4-4-2 but if Wenger persists with 4-2-3-1 then he could occupy the position behind the striker where Fabregas has found himself.

He also has something Arsenal fans are demanding – the will, and the know-how, to win trophies. Along with international team-mate Javier Martinez he is the only player in history to win a World Cup at senior level and then subsequently win an Under-21 tournament.

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