Juan Mata and the Importance of the Number Ten

Posted on 29th September 2015


This Saturday’s issue of the ‘i’ newspaper had a feature entitled ‘Mata shines in the Van Gaal revolution’ in recognition of the integral part that the Spaniard plays in Manchester. Two years ago Mata became Manchester United’s club record transfer when he flew into Carrington in a helicopter with a £37 million pound tag around his neck. Before that, Mata had transferred from a Valencia team that gained so many plaudits with talents like David Silva and David Villa, to Chelsea as the Premier Leagues infatuation with the ‘Number Ten’ really started to hit the heights of sheer romanticism.

The past decade has seen a massive shift in the way that Premier League teams operate on the pitch, and this has been largely influenced by the continental game. Gone are the days of orthodox 4-4-2 formations that relied largely in athleticism and brute strength – think about the Manchester United team that won the treble in 1999 with Roy Keane at the helm – they have been ousted by the 4-2-3-1. As mentioned the 4-2-3-1’s origins are from the continent and relies on movement, dynamism and precision passing to create overloads and passing triangles across the pitch. But most importantly the formations effectiveness rests largely on the shoulders of the individual who plays behind the striker.

This position is largely known as the ‘Number 10’ and is home to some of the world’s most revered players, those who immediately draw the eye with their intellect on the pitch, fantastic movement and passing range. This individual controls the game from his advanced position and Mata is one of the best at it as this season shows. His ability to control the game fits perfectly with the Van Gaal system of football, one that relies so heavily on possession. Manchester United struggled massively after the departure of Alex Ferguson, they had a squad that was bereft of creative players and midfield that was slow and one-dimensional. The arrival of Mata was meant to steady the sinking ship under David Moyes, but the Scotsman pushed his main creative hub out on to the right hand side and as such the ship eventually sunk for the man who finds himself in San Sebastian.

United’s number 8 is the prime example of how a playmaker should operate; using movement to cycle possession and create gaps. The position can be wholly underrated, and when a playmaker is left out of the team it is almost as if a team lacks any creativity going forward. Mata is the ultimate ‘connector’ providing creative flair to any team he plays in, which invariably makes those teams all the more threatening. After being used out wide he is now at the centre of the pitch, and Mata is much more beneficial to his team as a result. His goal scoring return further demonstrates that he should play a more central role, with 9 goals last term was the best since his 12 for Chelsea during his debut season.

Since then Chelsea themselves has really struggled without a naturalised Number 10, their success has largely come from wider areas of the pitch after the departure of Mata. Whilst Oscar is an extremely talented footballer, the question that is raised is whether he can replicate the delicate, intelligent play that a Number 10 can bring. The same question was posed to Shinji Kagawa who ultimately failed to live up to his sparkling reputation in Dortmund when playing down the middle for Manchester United. The position is an incredibly difficult one to master, hence why the players who play there are held in such high esteem – almost as if they are fantasy characters. When thinking of the likes of Zidane, Riquelme, Ronaldinho the football fan always becomes misty eyed, emotional and a large smile will appear on their faces because they are capable of magic on the football pitch.

There should be no doubt that when Juan Mata retires that he should bring those same emotions to the ordinary football fan because he is capable of the same things. Imagine Mata in a wizards hat casting a spell over the ball as he tricks his way past the opposition midfielder before picking out a wonderful through pass for the striker. Equally as effective floating in from the right hand channel as well, his intelligence is exactly what is needed to succeed at the highest level. In the modern game, every team craves a player who can create something out of nothing and Manchester United fans should feel incredibly happy that one of those players is in one of their shirts.

About the Author – Ben Jarman

Freelance football writer with a penchant for Spanish and European football. Work published by Fulham FC, Italian FA and the Evening Standard.

Twitter: @sonikkicks



Lead your favourite team to glory in Soccer Manager 22