It is tempting to believe that England never saw the very best of Juan Mata, an assessment swayed by several of his latter years at Manchester United that had him pegged as a peripheral figure.

Between 2018 and making his farewell appearance at Old Trafford in May 2022, the Spanish playmaker started just 31 league games.

By then, he was regarded as somewhat of a luxury, a lovely player to watch for sure, and one who always did the right things in the right moments. His movement was unfailingly intelligent. His touches were sumptuous, with even bog-standard five yard passes caressed. 

Alas, he was additionally someone who could not be relied on to muck in and graft, and in perpetual crisis United understandably turned to endeavour more often than not, over artistry.

Indeed, as Mata’s distinguished career drew to a close he was praised more for his off-field activities than any piercing through-ball he was capable of. 

By co-founding Common Goal, a charitable venture that encouraged footballers to donate 1% of their wages to good causes, the World Cup-winning midfielder has helped raise money for social projects around the globe. He was also widely credited with being the nicest man around.

Yet, while his profound decency should not be downplayed, neither should his profound impact on English football be so easily dismissed. 

In his two full seasons with Chelsea, the former Valencia schemer, was voted the Blues’ Player of the Year each time, orchestrating Champions League success, then later a Europa League triumph.
Mata assisted the winner in both finals. 

Then came a surprise £37m switch to United, or perhaps not given the circumstances, with Jose Mourinho returning to West London after a six-year absence and finding among his ranks a player who beautifully balanced pragmatism and poetry, but typically left the toil and dark arts to others.

Inherently distrustful of such players, it wasn’t long before Mata was put up for sale.

At United, as already alluded to, the Iberian regressed after a couple of promising campaigns, but there were always fleeting moments, reminders of his easy elegance, with a stunning bicycle kick at Anfield coming quickly to mind.

Disproving the sports betting, United came away from Merseyside that afternoon boasting a 2-0 victory, the midfielder bagging both.

But even if ordinary performances began to subdue his sublime gifts, Mata’s 11 years in England should be chiefly recalled for the immense influence he bore on its culture, changing it immeasurably for the better. 

Because before Mata, along with his compatriot and former Valencia team-mate David Silva, sprinkled class, composure and sophistication into our midfields they were almost exclusively populated by athletes, box-to-box marauders such as Roy Keane and Steven Gerrard who were powerful and brilliant but undeniably lacked nuance. 

Mata and Silva added that. They showed us that number 10s could execute their craft in the very midst of battle, not be pushed to the margins for fear of them being outmuscled or losing the ball.  

Now there is not a team around who doesn’t benefit from having a player of their ilk lighting up the centre-circle. 

Was Juan Mata one of the best Premier League midfielders of all time? Sadly not, and his inability to sustain the magic shown at Stamford Bridge is a collective loss for us all.

His importance though, should never be in doubt. 

*Credit for all of the photos in this article belongs to AP Photo*

Stephen Tudor is a freelance football writer and sports enthusiast who only knows slightly less about the beautiful game than you do.

A contributor to FourFourTwo and Forbes, he is a Manchester City fan who was taken to Maine Road as a child because his grandad predicted they would one day be good.