If there’s been one constant throughout Jose Mourinho’s managerial career in England, it’s been his love of bold substitutions.
Mourinho, perhaps more than any other manager in the modern game, uses his replacements swiftly, decisively and often unusually. He has made substitutions within the first 25 minutes to completely change formation; he has introduced players primarily tasked with communicating tactical messages to teammates; he’s made a half-time treble substitution; he even once made a change in the dying minutes to introduce a tall player capable of marking the opposition goalkeeper, who Mourinho suspected would go forward for a late corner.
Mourinho’s relationship with Juan Mata at Manchester United has been defined by two of these bold substitutions. Mata is not a typical Mourinho player — that was evidenced by their uneasy period together at Chelsea, with the Spaniard struggling to adjust to Mourinho’s demands for a counter-attacking wide player, despite having previously been Chelsea’s Player of the Year in each of his first two campaigns at Stamford Bridge.
Mata left for United, so Mourinho’s appointment at Old Trafford in 2016 was inevitably considered disastrous for the midfielder, who was immediately linked with a transfer away.
Indeed, in Mourinho’s first game in charge of United, things appeared to be following the expected script: He brought Mata on as a substitute and then took him off again after just 27 minutes in the Community Shield victory over Leicester.
Mourinho cited tactical concerns, and a need for an extra aerial weapon to defend long balls, but a substitute being substituted remains the ultimate indignity in football. Mata, widely regarded as one of football’s nice guys, a player who had never previously been seen losing his temper, was clearly unhappy.
An imminent exit seemed probable but, over two years later, Mata remains at Old Trafford. Now his role under Mourinho appears more important than ever.
United played disastrously in the opening 10 minutes, going 2-0 behind. After just 19 minutes, Mourinho sacrificed centre-back Eric Bailly, shifted midfielder Scott McTominay into defence, and introduced Mata. In Mourinho’s hour of desperation, two goals down to a relegation-threatened side and the axe supposedly looming, he turned to a playmaker he’d rarely trusted.
But Mata was the game changer. He dropped into central midfield to probe from deep, then shuttled forward into positions between the lines to create, switching play to the flanks. For United’s first goal, his softly struck left-footed free kick was unusual for being both technically brilliant and entirely unspectacular — clipped over the wall and into the net with a minimum of fuss. That’s Mata all over: nothing flashy; simple quiet efficiency.
In the end United produced a positive, determined, relentless attacking performance to win 3-2 with three goals in the final 20 minutes; Alexis Sanchez finishing the job in the final few. It was the old Manchester United, the United of Ferguson: if they start the comeback, they’ll finish it.