Football according to Juan
Juan Mata will stay at Manchester United for at least one more year, having signed a new contract with the club on Friday.
Having won almost everything there is to win in the game with United, Spain and former clubs Chelsea and Valencia, the 33-year-old is well placed to take a deeper look at the sport, how it’s changing and why growing older has made him enjoy football even more.
We discussed all that and more in this interview with Juan, published in Inside United, our official club magazine, in late 2020…
THE PHILOSOPHY OF WINNING
“Winning can mean different things. If people speak about me as a winner I guess they mean the trophies that, thankfully, I’ve won with the national team and with the clubs I’ve played for – I have been very lucky. I think the whole concept of winning has many, many different meanings, though. For a club that is not challenging for trophies, winning might be staying in the Premier League and not getting relegated – that’s winning.
“For players also playing at a club like Manchester United having come from a very difficult pathway… that might be a win as well. So the meaning of winning or success is very subjective and from my point of view it’s not only about lifting trophies. It has a process behind it and the process itself can be a victory.
“There are many people who perhaps didn’t have the chance to win any trophies but they feel very hungry to win one, even only one. And there are people who have won many trophies and they don’t have that hunger anymore. I guess it depends on the personality, the determination of each player and the way you see your career or how your mindset is towards football. Like I said before, if you only think about winning trophies then you will only be a winner if you win trophies, but for me there are many winners already, who are people that deserve to be recognised who maybe didn’t have the chance to win because of different circumstances. So I think there is a bigger conversation about winning and what it means.
“Of course you savour the winning part, but the defeats and the bad moments are what you remember always. I think that’s human. It’s something psychological in that you tend to remember more the negative things rather than the good ones. And in a football world that is filled with expectations sometimes when you play for a big club and you win you have happiness and you have joy, but you also feel relief. And when you lose you really feel that tough feeling, you really take it into your bones, more than actually winning, more than what you enjoy when you win. It gets stuck to your mind.
“So every time you lose a game or you have a bad game the effect from that lasts longer than a victory. It’s not great but it is what it is, and it’s about how you come back from that. About how you win again, in whatever way that may be that has a meaning to you.”
EXPLOSIONS OF HAPPINESS
“To score a goal is the best feeling you can have on a football pitch from my point of view. A goalkeeper might say that saving a penalty is the same feeling for them, but scoring a goal for me is an explosion of happiness and energy. It depends how and when you score but it’s the best feeling you can have. It doesn’t matter what position you play – defenders love to score, midfielders love to score and a striker needs to score. It’s key. And it has always been an important part of my game. Is there a goal in football I wish I’d scored? For me it would be the Maradona one. I’m sorry to say it in England! The one where he dribbled from halfway and scored in the World Cup, it was just incredible.”
BEAUTIES AND BEASTS
“My 50th goal for United was special. It’s special to score your first goal and every single goal after that so imagine when you reach 50. Or I imagine when Wayne Rooney reached 250 for this club! I think it’s fair to say you get more satisfaction from the beautiful goals, but also from the important ones. If you can score an important goal which is also beautiful then that’s the best combination. But scrappy goals or ugly goals, like people always say, count as well. And, at the end of the day, every team needs goals and if you have players that can score even the ugly ones then that’s good. The ones that are lovely to score are the tap-ins, when someone plays the ball to you and you only have to shoot from one metre! I remember a few like that at the back post, those ones are nice also because they’re the ones that show you’re in the right place at the right moment. That’s not always valued for some reason.”
BAGGING THE BIG ONES
“It feels so good to score an important goal. If you score a goal in a semi-final or a final, or if your team is losing and you score the goal that starts the comeback or wins the game, it’s just better. Rather than scoring in a 5-0, for example. I always say the most important goal is the one that opens the result and the players that score those goals are normally very good players. From my point of view the one I scored in the final of the European Championship [in 2012 for Spain], even though it was 4-0, was special. It was the closing of that Spanish football generation and winning trophies. At United scoring in the FA Cup final [in 2016], the goals at Anfield and some other important ones that won points or brought comebacks… they stand out.”
ASSISTS... AND ASSISTING THE ASSIST
“The satisfaction of assisting is also big and great. If you make a great pass and you leave your striker or whoever with a one-on-one with the goalkeeper or even, like I said before, for a tap-in, you hope they will score and then they will come and celebrate with you! [Smiles] It doesn’t reach the feeling of scoring a goal unless it’s an incredible assist or you had some incredible play from one or two or three players as well. I always speak about the world we live in now which is based on stats, people try to make stats about everything – tackles, physical performances, assists, goals. But for me there are some kinds of assists which you cannot measure and for me they are very important – it’s the pass before the last assist, especially if you break the defence with that pass. It doesn’t count as an assist but most of the time it’s more important than the actual last touch before the goal. So in a world of stats we should try to make that stat count because I value it from players and I think people will valuable it too.”
Watch all 51 of Mata's United goals so far
🔥 Celebrate El Mago's new deal by watching all 51 of his goals so far, including a couple you may recall at Anfield...
THE CHANGING GAME
“It feels like we’re in a very strange moment right now for mainly one reason, which we all know about of course [COVID-19]. But in the game of football there are also changing moments. We have new rules and new technology and playing without fans, so different kinds of changes that have affected the game. They can actually make you change the way you defend for example, from free-kicks or corners. And then we’ve seen the VAR decisions for penalties, for handballs, it’s a rule that has brought up many conversations lately.
“I think VAR can make football fairer, to give a penalty when it is a penalty or to give an offside for a goal when it is offside. We are in a situation where results are that important they can provoke a manager leaving or a player getting really heavily criticised and things like that. So by trying to make VAR a part of it you can actually say that the result is considered that important and I think it’s a fair or fairer way rather than winning a trophy by an offside goal, for example.
“In that aspect it’s fairer, but, as we know, it has been used in different ways, it sometimes takes longer than we all want to make decisions and then the decisions are subject to the opinion of the referee and sometimes others. Hopefully we’ll get there and we’ll use it as a tool to make football fairer. At the moment we are still trying to figure out how to do that, but we need to adapt. If you adapt, I think you’ll find a better way of trying to manage the situation rather than complaining and not wanting to accept it, that doesn’t make any sense. So let’s choose the first option.
“One big thing that has changed the game recently was having no fans at games. It can really affect things that can happen in a game, like the reaction from a team after you score a goal or you concede. If you have fans, they have an impact on that. Having no fans is changing some aspects of football, which can also maybe affect the results. We have seen lately, let’s say some ‘different’ results from what we’re used to, from almost every team. So again it’s a different situation we need to adapt to. We did very well without fans for the last part of last season, but of course we want to play for the fans and without them football is not the same at all.”
Mata’s most memorable moments gallery
Juan has certainly made an impression at Old Trafford since his move from Chelsea in January 2014.
“I have always seen the essence of football in the same way, mainly what I learned from my dad, but you have to be able to adapt. That’s key. If you are living in this era and the way football is changing, then either you adapt yourself and you change and modernise your thinking or you’ll get stuck in the past. Of course, from my point of view you have to have some values and principles that stick with you always, it doesn’t matter what age you are, but there are certain things that need to change.
“The essence of football for me is I love to play with the ball. I enjoy being with the ball. I love to go for wins, I love to feel like a family in the dressing room and with everyone at the club. I love to feel like one with the supporters and for them to be proud of the way we play and the way we try to win games. I love it when I see players improving and getting to a different level thanks to their team-mates, the manager and everyone around them. There are many things in football that I love, it’s that essence. For me the essence is when I used to play with my friends in school, we played play one-against-one, we tried tricks, we scored goals… yes, of course, now the demands are different, but the sport is the same and the core of it and the feeling I have for it is the same.
“Of course football has changed. There have been many changes since I started playing, since my dad was playing too, up to now. On the pitch and off the pitch. On the pitch the way the game is played, tactically it has changed, physically it has changed, and statistically it has changed. In every single department, if I speak about nutrition or psychology or player care, many things have changed… one of them being social media which has a big presence now in every aspect of football. That brings more distractions which we didn’t have before or my dad didn’t have, although probably he had different distractions but not as many as now. But, again, that’s something you have to adapt to nowadays or your frustration will be inevitable and too much.
“We can speak also about technology in football with VAR and new rules. Everything changes in life, and in sport and football in particular, and probably in 20 years we will be saying it has changed again in a different direction. The best thing you can do and, for me, the most intelligent thing you can do, is to adapt without losing your essence.
“United has always done that. It has adapted but also one of the many things that makes this club great are the values that it has stuck with over the years, and in the difficult moments which, for me, shows strength and really believing in what your values are. That’s why it’s special to play for this club. It’s just incredible the way it’s overcome difficult situations and it will keep doing it as long as football is played, because it’s the way this club is.”
“I said recently, I still have many years in head and legs and I think the way I play will allow me to play for a long time as most of my game is based on the way that I understand football, and my decisions with and without the ball.
“I have been playing for some time now but I still feel young and physically I also feel resilient. Thankfully I haven’t had many injuries, I’ve always been available for the majority of the games. I’m happy and proud of that and that has been a key part of my game also, always being ready. I said what I said because I feel good in my body, I feel hungry and passionate and I am keen to enjoy football for many more years in my mind. And the combination of those is very important in order to keep playing. When difficult moments have come – and they will come – I always come back to the fact that I still love playing so why not keep going until you don’t love it anymore.
“I think as you get older in life you realise more about what you’re doing and what you have done rather than when you’re 18, 19, 20. At that age, you just think of playing football, you don’t think of many other things, you just enjoy the ride. Now you realise how lucky you are and you savour every single training session and every single game. Hopefully, as I told you, I have many training sessions, many games and many more positive experiences to live, and the most important thing is to keep hungry in your mind and passionate. You must enjoy the challenge of playing football while knowing the demands. There has to be that enjoyment side of it because otherwise you will not perform at your best level. That works for me and I think that works for every single player.
“When I think of my life as a footballer, first of all to be able to do what you love for a living, to play sport, to be a sportsman, to play football and have this privileged situation thanks to something that you love, that’s very difficult to do. And the majority of the population cannot do that. Football has given me the ability to decide what I want to do afterwards and it’s given me time. Not time now, but time after to really find out what I love in life and to try to pursue that. Time is all we have and sometimes we forget it.
“Football has given me the most important things in my professional life of course, but also it has given me the chance to make my family happy, my girlfriend happy and my friends happy, which is very satisfying too. I feel very grateful for having kicked a ball when I was one or two years old with my sister, my parents and my grandad, who was a big fan and influence, and I also feel very grateful for having lived what I’ve lived. Hopefully I will live still many more nice experiences thanks to football and I always try to remember how privileged and lucky I am, and I try to savour it all every day.”