Mata: A born winner who grew up fast
He may not be a like-for-like replacement for Fabregas, but would bring an aura of success to Arsenal
Friday 29 July 2011
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.
He was in the trenches with the likes of Iker Casillas and Xavi Hernandez as Spain dealt with the body blow of losing their first group game in South Africa. He learned from the leaders and then became one for both club and country.
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.
If Manchester City push hard to beat Arsenal to Mata's signature, his friendship with his Spain team-mate could work in their favour. But Arsenal have their own secret weapon – Mata's fondest footballing memories. He grew up adoring Dennis Bergkamp and is more than capable of playing just off the centre-forward as the Dutchman did for Wenger's "Invincibles".
When the Gunners went a season without defeat during the 2003-04 campaign Mata was arriving at Real from Oviedo. He won the 2005-06 Juvenil-A league and was fast-tracked to Real Madrid's B team. But, as they did with every other member of that Juvenil-A league-winning side, Real failed to pin Mata down on a long-term contract, and well-advised by a shrewd footballing father, also called Juan, who played for Burgos, Salamanca and Oviedo, Mata moved to Valencia aged 19.
Leaving home at 15 to join Madrid and leaving the biggest club in Spain to go to Valencia were big steps that have marked him as a professional. A move to England will not be the other-planetary switch it is for some young players.
Mata won the Spanish Cup in his first season at Valencia. Coach Ronald Koeman did little right in his short time at the Mestalla but his decision to throw the youngster into the team and keep him there for 24 games reaped a harvest of five goals, and that semi-final performance that sent Valencia through. 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 Barcelonaget 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 more often than not over the last two campaigns.
He played most of his 122 games for Valencia in that system, although usually starting on the left of the three, darting inside to shoot or pass, still off his stronger left foot. The transition will not be difficult on the pitch. He has the speed of thought and fleet of foot that Wenger demands.
Just as important though, he has something Arsenal fans are demanding – the will, and the knowhow, 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.
The way he answers the question "why?" says a lot about the attitude Arsenal will be investing in if they sign him. "I did not look at it as missing out on holidays or coming back down a level, it was a different challenge and an experience that would make me a better player. I am on a run of playing through the summer – the Under-20s World Cup, the Confederations Cup, the World Cup. There will be plenty of time to rest when I have retired."
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