Not so long ago, the number 10 was seen as one of the most valuable and sought after positions in world football. They were seen as the creative hubs of the side in charge of chance creation, but like many elements of football, it was just a trend. Thanks to managers either preferring the side to be more defensibly solid from every area of the pitch, it meant the once favoured attacking midfielder was replaced. Many players who were born to play as a number 10 had to adapt or be left behind, and many did so. Marek Hamsik turned into a goalscoring number 8 for Sarri, Dries Mertens turned into one of the best poachers in Serie A, and Di Maria already turned into a very good winger. While these are some of many players who succeeded in transitioning into another position, there are still some players who aren’t having a similar success. Oscar left Chelsea thanks to not being able to have a role in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 system, Mesut Ozil seems to not be wanted at Emery’s Arsenal and James Rodriguez looks to be struggling for Bayern, even with his good performances. It’s a shame that these players are struggling, but it’s just how football works. It’s a sport that goes through trends and right now it’s a position that isn’t favoured.
The player who we’ll be talking about, regarding this decline in the desire for an attacking midfielder is Juan Mata. He arrived in England in 2011, when he was signed by Chelsea for £26m from Valencia, and was truly loved at Stamford Bridge. He won the player of the season twice in both of his full campaigns, and truly lit up the league. His departure from Chelsea is still seen as rather baffling. Mourinho let him go because he didn’t think he did enough defensively to start over Oscar. After their relationship soured, he joined Manchester United for £37m. While many do not like Mourinho, me included, he was right on this. It became even more apparent when Louis Van Gaal joined the club in the summer of 2014. He originally found game time difficult, with record signing Di Maria slotting right in at the beginning of the season, however he did eventually find a space on the right side of a 4-1-4-1. While his numbers were never spectacular, he still contributed under Van Gaal with some important goals and kept the side moving the ball in the final third. He played in every Premier League game in the Dutchman’s final season, and his numbers showed this to an extent. He completed 47 passes a game, the second highest in his United career, was taking 1.5 shots and rarely was getting dispossessed. His chance creation was low at 1.4 but that’s more of a problem with Van Gaal’s incredibly pragmatic system. The problems that Mata was suffering from during his time at United were struggling to fit his skill set in a side that didn’t have the space for it. Players like Jesse Lingard and Henrik Mkhitaryan offered more off the ball and were quicker. Mata couldn’t play in the middle because he didn’t have enough defensively to play as a number 8 in a 4-3-3, and couldn’t play outwide because he didn’t have the pace and dribbing. While Mourinho did use him more than any expected him to, the issues didn’t get better as he aged. His disadvantages have became even more apparent under Solsjkaer. The former United striker wanted to impliment a pressing style in the side. While this did bring the best out of the likes of Rashford, Lingard and Herrera, Mata is a play who has not had the same boost. Mata just doesn’t have the same speed and energy as Lingard, and whenever he replaced his teammate, it just showed how out of his depth Mata seems to be in this sort of system. Mata is and always will be one of the most technically gifted footballers United have seen in the last 10 years. His reading of the game, combined with his ability at finding space in the final third make him a useful player, but not in the team that United aspire to be.
It’s discussions like this that make football sound harsher than it can be; adapt or be left behind. While this usually happens with managers, Mata highlights just how prominent it can be with players. This isn’t to say that number 10’s are prehistoric, but at this moment they are just out of trend. It means players, like Mata just have to try and find a way to continue to perform at the top level. Many players have figured this out, but unfortunately some can’t, and must wish they were born earlier, so they could truly have the great career they deserve.