Football has changed around Juan Mata.
It seems a lifetime ago the gifted Spanish conjuror was named Chelsea’s Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons, before becoming Manchester United‘s club-record signing in January 2014, at a cost of £37.1million.
But even then, the writing was on the wall.
Mata is a wonderful footballer, of that there is no doubt. He is intelligent in his movement, flawless in his technique and blessed with the vision to spot passes that unlock defences.
Rejected by Real Madrid as a youngster, he soon proved the foolishness of Los Blancos‘ decision to allow him to leave by breaking through at Valencia and quickly establishing himself as one of the most exciting young talents in Spanish football.
He is a World Cup and European Championship winner with Spain, the instigator of Champions League and Europe League triumphs with Chelsea, and as impressive a technician as the Premier League has known.
He is the archetypal No.10. But, unfortunately for Mata, that archetype is now archaic.
In a world where central attacking midfielders are free from the rigours of a defensive workload, able to roam as they please, socks down, head up, drifting in and out of games as they find space and poke holes in the opposition’s resistance, Mata is king.
Those days are gone, though. No.10s are now expected to lead their team’s pressing efforts when out of possession and to have the dynamism to break beyond the striker and into scoring positions once the ball is won.
Technical skill is still a must but it is now required to be allied with great stamina and athleticism, speed and incision. This is where Mata falls down.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Dele Alli is the prime example of how the role of the No.10 has evolved, and, with its current demands, this is why Jesse Lingard is often preferred to Mata in the position for United.
Questions were asked of José Mourinho when, at the beginning of his second spell in charge of Chelsea, he marginalised Mata before selling him to United midway through his first season back at the Stamford Bridge helm. But the Portuguese, it seems, saw the way the game was going and how Mata was ill-suited to it.
The pair were, of course, reunited at Old Trafford in 2016, but Mourinho more often elected to field the Spanish wide in the right wing.
And were Mata a better fit for a wide berth, he might have remained relevant for longer at Old Trafford, but the same lack of speed and athleticism again holds him back.
Much like how the record deal that took him to the Theatre of Dreams five years ago has been eclipsed several times since, Mata is almost obsolete at United.
There are still flashes of the old magic, such as the free-kick against Juventus in the Champions League – his talent is too great to be repressed uncontested. But he has started just 13 Premier League games this season, with only four in 2019 and none in the Champions League.
Approaching 31 and with a contract set to expire at the end of the season, it’s difficult to imagine Mata re-emerging as a leading man at another elite European club. He is a casualty of football’s evolution.