MANCHESTER, England — After 157 goalless minutes of Manchester United’s FA Cup third-round tie with Wolves, a red shirt raced through on goal. Had it been anyone else, Old Trafford might have held its collective breath, but it was Juan Mata, and one delicate clip over John Ruddy later, the hosts were on their way to a 1-0 win in Wednesday’s replay.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s new United have their own qualities — pace, energy and youthful exuberance among them — but at times, they lack a calmness that comes with experience. At 31, Mata has it in bucket loads and that is why he is still so valuable. In the short term, his goal set up a fourth-round tie with either Watford or Tranmere. The bigger picture — and the reason he was handed a new contract in the summer — is that he can aid the development of Solskjaer’s young charges.
The hope is that Marcus Rashford — who was forced off with a back injury — Anthony Martial, Andreas Pereira, Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams can learn a lot from a player who is closing in on 600 senior appearances and has won almost everything, including the World Cup.
After spending much of his United career on the right wing under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, Solskjaer has brought him back in from the periphery.
Playing as the No. 10 against Norwich on Saturday, he set up goals for Rashford and Martial in a comfortable 4-0 win. Picked against Wolves, he was at it again after just three minutes, lifting a pass over the top for Daniel James to chase. It was only the third time this season Mata has started back-to-back games, but he did more than enough to suggest he should be in Solskjaer’s team on Sunday at Anfield, where he scored both goals in a 2-1 win in March 2015.
Without his 67th-minute goal against Wolves — his second of the season — these two teams might still have been playing on Sunday.
There was, at least, more excitement in 45 minutes at Old Trafford than there had been in an hour and half at Molineux. James went through twice from clipped balls over the top from Mata and then Fred. Ruddy, in for his usual cup stint in place of Rui Patricio, saved from Mata and Martial.
United also had their No. 2 in goal, Sergio Romero, and the Argentinian was needed after eight minutes when Raul Jimenez got his shot away after creating space with a delicate touch that was too clever for Williams and Harry Maguire.
Two minutes later, Wolves had the ball in the net, but United were given a let off that their calamitous defending did not deserve. Fred rifled a pass against Nemanja Matic, Jimenez beat Maguire in a battle for the loose ball and Pedro Neto tucked away his finish. It was the type of goal Solskjaer would not have wanted to watch again, but fortunately for him, VAR Simon Hooper did and noticed the ball leaping up off Maguire and hitting Jimenez’s hand.
United got another warning after half an hour when Matt Doherty’s header came back of the inside of the post, although the Wolves defender had strayed an arm’s length offside so the goal wouldn’t have counted anyway.
Then, finally, a breakthrough.
Wolves failed to deal with Maguire’s hopeful ball up the left touchline, and as Martial picked up the scraps, the visitors’ defence parted for Mata to race towards Ruddy. It was a moment that called for a cool head and Mata delivered, lifting the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper to win the game and give Solskjaer a couple of more days of breathing space.
When Mata released his autobiography this season, he sent each United player a copy with a personal message of encouragement inside, and at full time against Wolves, he congratulated each of his team-mates before leaving the pitch.
“When you have players like Sergio, David [De Gea], Nemanja and Juan in this group, they are boys with perspective,” Solskjaer said afterwards.
“They have great experience, seen good times and bad times, and they’re helping the young lads through this season. They’ve been top.”
It is part of Mata’s role as a senior member of the squad. Solskjaer has included the Spaniard in a “leadership group” that also includes Maguire, Rashford, Ashley Young and De Gea in an attempt to bridge the gap between the dressing room and the manager’s office.
He is the go-between off the pitch as well as on it, playing between the lines to link midfield with attack.
Approaching the sixth anniversary of his move from Chelsea to Old Trafford, United fans still stop him in the street to talk about that overhead kick against Liverpool in 2015. Another one at Anfield on Sunday would cap a perfect week for Solskjaer’s calm, quiet leader.