There is one thing that is obvious, which is I can’t change the rules and I can’t start the match with 12, 13 or 14. I’d love that because many people deserve to play and Juan is one who deserves to play because of the way he works, behaves, the way we see him every day. But if I play him and I don’t play (Eden) Hazard or Oscar, you are asking me about Hazard or Oscar in this moment. It’s a consequence of the squad we have where, for these positions behind the striker, we have so many options. It’s hard for me. I don’t have a special pleasure leaving players out. I enjoy playing them and making them happy, but there’s nothing I can do.
– Jose Mourinho, November 2013
When it was announced that Mourinho would be taking over the helm from Rafa Benitez, few would have expected Azpilicueta to start more games at left back than Ashley cole. Even, fewer would have expected Mata to be resigned to just three starts in as many games. None would have expected Mikel Obi to have scored more goals than Mata at this time; but that is the current situation. Juan Mata, famously Chelsea’s Player of the Year for the past two seasons, finds himself resigned to the bench, a place he’s only well accustomed to when playing for Spain.
On the surface, it looks like Mourinho’s decision is more personal than professional, but I see no yardstick for such conclusion. Some conspiracy theorists even suggested that Mourinho was against Spanish players; but his apparent belief in Fernando Torres coupled with his decision to pick Azpilicueta over Ashley Cole at left back blatantly indicates otherwise. Mourinho has a knack of controversy and he’s no stranger to high profile radical decisions. If you take Mourinho’s word for it and keep sentiments aside, you’d see he has a point. For a player that can easily walk into most teams in the world to be left in the shade, there has to be a rational reason.
From the moment news came that Chelsea was pursuing Willian, it was evident one of the midfield triumvirate was going to be left out. When a coach comes into a club in the off-season period, he spends time to analyse his players and see those he can work with. During training sessions, he notes the abilities of each players and picks his team using that ability. Of course, in the course of the season, a coach’s preferred starting lineup might change when players’ attitude changes in training. Mourinho simply iterated that his decision to fade out Mata was because he (Mata) does less defensive work than his midfield counterparts, however amazingly talented he is offensively.
Oscar, Hazard and Willian are in sizzling form. Mourinho’s preferred formation is 4-2-3-1, meaning there’s only room for three playmakers behind the striker. Oscar made 109 tackles in the 2012-2013 season, compared to 69 tackles from Mata and Hazard combined. Surely, Mourinho observed this defensive work he does! This season, he has a 61% successful tackle rate. He loves to shoot and is arguably Chelsea’s best long ranger behind Lampard – this season alone he has racked up 34 shots. He also has the added advantage of using the Confederations Cup to woo Mourinho to his side, hence Mourinho already saw his work rate competitively. Oscar could easily be Chelsea’s next Frank Lampard as he has all the qualities to get him there. He thrives when he plays the No. 10 position, just behind the striker – which coherently is Mata’s preferred position too.
If Oscar had sent out a message that he was the man of the moment, Hazard has done well to show otherwise. The young Belgian possesses a quality that none of his other competitors have – his quick feet and mesmerising dribbling (he has completed 65 dribbles, more dribbles than any other player in the league). This brings a different flavour to Chelsea’s attack and this somehow makes him untouchable. Not only is he one of only two players in the league to have surpassed 100 attacking contributions (assists, dribbles, crosses, shots on goal), he has the second best shot accuracy rate of any player in the league to have had more than 25 shots, with 66.7%. His talents make the opposition drawn to him thereby creating space for the rest of his teammates. With a sudden, explosive change of pace or a powerful curler, Hazard can change a game in seconds.
When a club with many midfield talents buys another midfielder for £30million, one would expect the new player to feature often. In all honesty, this was a no-brianer! William was expected to play often otherwise he would not have been bought at such fee. Willian is the most hardworking of the trio – he has played less games than Mata but has made more tackles – something that Mourinho craves . He is a player that can hold unto the ball and fits perfectly for Mourinho’s aim of mixing rigidity with flair. If Mata (and maybe Schurle) was to displace any one of the midfield trio, it would have been Willian. However, his superb work rate makes him the best fit for Mourinho’s desire for ‘hardworking’ players. He, like Ramires, never gets tired of running and chasing down oppositions when his team isn’t with the ball, a reminisce of Arjen Robben. If Mourinho was looking for a hard worker, he certainly got one!
Having said this, we can see why Mata is struggling to fight his way through. The trinity of Oscar, Hazard and Willian are performing and it’d be unfair to blot anyone of them from the starting lineup. It has to be said though that Mata is an extremely gifted player – blessed with a sublime first touch, ability to give eye popping passes, very deadly at delivering those set pieces, calm and has a great personality. He is very good when his team is on the ball, but when the opponents are in possession, Mata isn’t the one you can rely on to win the ball. The game literally passes by him until a twist of fate brings the ball to his teammate. However, he makes a team tick very much offensively, no wonder Mourinho keeps reiterating his desire to keep him, insisting he has ‘a big role’ to play.
What then is the way forward for the Spaniard? His talent is one that’s needed in very many (if not all) teams, Chelsea included. Mata has a wealth of clubs to pick from, should he finally decide his time at Stamford Bridge is over. Chelsea will be understandably unwilling to sell a player of such calibre to rivals team as Arsenal and Manchester United. The first club has a rich array of world class midfielders so it is unlikely that they’d need him. The latter club is well in need of Mata’s services, and valued at £30 million, he will be a good buy. He can play behind the striker and sometimes operate from the flanks, giving room for the wingers to dip in the crosses, United style. Again, Chelsea don’t need to sell Mata to a rival club; they don’t need to sell him at all. Other clubs like Atletico Madrid and PSG could see Mata ply his trade with them, but if reports from the press are anything to go by, it seems likely that Juan Mata will wait till the summer and force a move to Bayern Munich; after all, it isn’t like he is guaranteed a berth in the Spanish team, come Brazil 2014.
He is undoubtedly the best player not getting what he deserves in Europe, but for the right reasons for Mourinho. With time, I hope his situation is resolved because such talent should not be left to rot.
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