It mystified many Manchester United fans. With the Red Devils needing a goal to break the deadlock against Crystal Palace, off came Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard for Marouane Fellaini and Marcus Rashford with 30 minutes still to play.
On his 200th appearance for the club, Mata’s afternoon had been cut short, and it didn’t go down particularly well with the Old Trafford faithful as they watched their side disappointingly amble to a 0-0 draw with the Eagles.
Not only is Mata a fan favourite for his humble, forthcoming nature, the Spaniard also has recent form when it comes to being the man to step up and make the difference when United have been looking for a saviour.
Victories against both Newcastle United and Juventus this season have come from losing positions, and on each occasion it was a Mata free-kick which instigated the fightback. Moreover, in both scenarios the result did a lot to ease the pressure on the shoulders of United boss Jose Mourinho.
It is a curious relationship which exists between the player and his manager, with Mata’s exit from Chelsea having come as a direct result of his lack of playing time under the Portuguese in 2013-14.
When Mourinho followed the attacker’s career path to Manchester, there was a widespread belief that Mata’s days at United were numbered but, until now, they have managed to coexist with few or no problems.
There is also now a very real possibility that Mata will soon sign a three-year extension to his expiring United contract, and it is the least he deserves given the hole he has dug Mourinho out of lately.
While the manager’s job has at no point ridden on a single result, the two wins which were sparked by Mata free-kick goals have both allowed Mourinho a sigh of relief at a trying time.
With United sitting seventh in the Premier League and needing a favour from Juventus to make their matchday-six trip to Valencia in their Champions League group irrelevant to their European hopes, the prospects for their ailing season can only have been made even worse had Mata not stood tall at crucial moments in recent weeks.
In his own humble way, the 30-year-old took the chance to remind people of his quality at set-pieces following his crucial goal against Newcastle when writing his ‘One Hour Behind’ blog the following week.
“On a personal level, obviously it was important to score the first goal, the one that got us back into the game and made us believe in the chance of a comeback,” he said.
“It was a free-kick, something which isn’t new to me (they have told me that since I’ve arrived in the Premier League, nobody has scored more goals from direct free-kicks) and, therefore, sometimes I ask to take them.”
More than that, nobody has done more than Mata to haul Mourinho back into the black with United fans. With credit running lower and lower following United’s rough start to the season and his constant digs at players left, right and centre, the Portuguese has needed every ally he can find.
If only he could find a regular spot for Mata in which the former Valencia man can thrive, the constant frustrations of slow, ponderous football and a lack of creativity in the final third might be a thing of the past.
In a team lacking game-changers, Mata’s natural game might be harnessed more if he was given the leeway to offer exactly the kind of characteristics United are missing.
Instead, he has been restricted to an average of 51 minutes per appearance across his 13 games in the Premier League and Champions League this term heading into Tuesday night’s home fixture against Young Boys, and it feels like an asset is being wasted.
Could Mourinho make more use of Mata? Definitely, since he has used him as a No.10 from the start of a game only five times in the last two years.
Can Mata make all the difference in Mourinho's continued fight to keep his head above water at Old Trafford? The evidence suggests he has a major part to play.
Any more heroics like those he has produced lately and Mata, the man whose future appeared most at threat when Mourinho arrived at the club, could prove to be Jose’s very own special one.