This week @AmyEustace on why Juan Mata is playing his way back into the Chelsea side as he starts against Norwich this afternoon.
It’s so hard to sympathise with footballers. They’re better paid than most world leaders, their wives are usually glamour models, socialites or pop stars, and they make their living playing the best-loved sport in the world. They’re also morons. But every now and then, a chosen one arrives; a player who is above the jealous disdain, regardless of your allegiance. That chosen one, for now, is Chelsea’s Juan Mata, and hearts bleed for him.
Football loves its precious narratives and in this story, he may as well be Rapunzel locked away in a tower by a wicked stepmother in the form of José Mourinho. Benched, for reasons known only to the manager, Juan Mata has fans from Barcelona to Berwick are rooting for him.
It’s not that they have anything against the Special One, it’s simply that Mata bears relatively few of the trademarks associated with the eminently hateable modern footballer. Mourinho’s apparent vendetta against the young Spanish playmaker makes him the bully of a very one-sided tale.
Mata is the Premier League’s answer to the Andrex puppy, and his apparent flawlessness has sparked a wide range of theories about his exclusion.
The more outlandish of these speak of a bitter conspiracy on Mourinho’s part to isolate those in his Chelsea squad that may still worship the false gods of Rafael Benitez, Roberto di Matteo and other pretenders to his throne.
Another product of the rumour mill suggests that the higher-ups in Madrid had repeatedly used Mata’s move to Chelsea to highlight the Portuguese manager’s transfer market failings, and Mourinho is seeking to prove a point.
Has Jose lost his marbles?
Most people think José has just lost his marbles entirely. What argument is possibly convincing enough to bar Chelsea’s Player of the Year for the last two seasons running from the starting line up in every league match this season to date? He tried so hard, and got so far, but in the end it doesn’t even Mata.
I wouldn’t kick the playmaker out of bed for eating a packet of crisps (come on, just look at that face), but the Chelsea gaffer has been keeping him on the periphery of the squad for far lesser crimes. Surely there’s a logical reason, and by that I mean one not derived from the deleted scenes of Mean Girls, right?
A quick perusal of Mata’s stats from last season indicate what we all already knew; the dude is an assist-making, goalscoring, chance-creating demigod. Demigod. He’s not all-powerful. He can’t be everywhere at once. He prioritises the creative focuses. A steadfast attacker, he spends a very small proportion of his time in his own half, preferring to roam the corridors of the opposition’s defence.
It’s precisely this attitude which catapulted Mata to the top of the assists table last year with 12 to match his 12 league goals, making him directly involved in almost a third of Chelsea’s total 2012/13 goal tally. He was almost always ready and waiting to capitalise on slips and through balls. Not convinced? Have a look at this.
José wants to his new Chelsea side to play a bit differently than squads have since his first stint at Stamford Bridge, and it’s his way or the highway. Perhaps it’s Mata’s artistic tunnel vision that Mourinho finds so problematic.
In the Spaniard’s stead, Oscar has been shoved into the attacking midfield spotlight, and Mourinho reserved special praise for the Brazilian when outlining the ‘football issues’ behind spurning Mata:
In this moment, Oscar is my number 10 and, if anyone tells me Oscar has not been Chelsea’s best player this season, I’d disagree. I have to prove to the fans that I am good. Now (Mata) must do the same.
Paired with Ramires in a midfield fulcrum that invokes memories of the Xabi Alonso/Javier Mascherano pairing of 2008/09 Liverpool, Oscar is certainly the creator of the two, but less so than Mata. So far this season, having started every game, he has scored twice but assisted none, and he creates an average of 1.33 chances, to Mata’s 2.7, per game.
Oscar’s real quality lies in his broader discipline. He has more of an input in other parts of the field, dropping deep and finding space on the wings when the centre of the park gets cluttered. He’s no stranger to nicking the ball and tracks back in support of his teammates. Last season, Oscar made 86 tackles, far eclipsing his rival’s total of 25. As a whole, he’s as good off the ball as Mata is with it.
In light of the big picture, Mourinho’s aversion to Mata seems that bit less unreasonable. But, apparently not one to go down without a fight, the Spaniard’s cameo in last weekend’s draw against Spurs was a turning point in the game.
His free kick was perfectly placed for John Terry to convert, levelling the score for the visitors. Mata’s performance was so good that he had the manager eating a rare slice of humble pie, thinly veiled in the suggestion that his tough approach had gotten the best out of the player.
I want my players to tell me they want to play. Juan told me that.
To the untrained eye, Mata didn’t do anything differently, but in reality he recovered the ball a total of seven times in his 45 minute spell; more than any other player in blue on the pitch. After being subbed on, he made three tackles. Only Ramires and Terry made more.
Improving world-class players is a feat only performed by the bravest managers, and a lesser man would have probably let Mata go along as he was without any criticism. Whatever his personal motivation for binning the Spaniard, Mourinho saw ‘great’ and thought ‘not good enough’, and early signs suggest that it’s paying dividends for both.
Mata’s White Hart Lane performance earned him a starting berth in a 4-0 rout of Steaua Bucharest during the week, and his reaction to being sidelined would have helped him getting a starting berth at Norwich on Sunday. Let’s just hope it’s not just Juan step forward and two steps back…