The curious case of Juan Mata

Juan MataJuan Mata proved himself to be one of the Premier League’s best players in a Chelsea shirt last season. In his career in England, he has been a hugely influential player scoring 18 goals and providing an assist for his teammates an impressive 25 times.

His form over the past couple of seasons has been recognised by his retention of the Chelsea Player of the Year accolade for two years in a row. Before the debacle this season, it would have been hard to argue against Mata being the first name of Chelsea’s team sheet. Statistics don’t lie- when you see that Mata creates a clear cut chance for every 25 minutes he is on the pitch he simply has to play. All he needs to do is have a half decent striker in front of him and there is a clear ingredient for goals in the team. In fact, Spanish teammate Fernando Torres’ loss of form would probably have red greater without the signing of Mata.

Upon his move from Valencia, Mata settled in perfectly. The seemingly frequent talk of foreign players taking time to settle in evaded the Spanish international. Although many considered David Silva to be a better acquisition from Spain, his form has tailed off since his arrival whereas Mata displays a consistency that very rarely graces players in his position. It is ironic that in a season where clubs have been fishing aimlessly for players in the hole behind the striker (the role that is probably Mata’s best position) Chelsea have three or four names that could do the same job. David Moyes would have killed to have made a Mata like signing this summer, similarly Arsenal were fishing around until the last day of the transfer window to sign a player of the same fold- Mesut Ozil. However, upon further examination it is testament to Mata’s incredible form at Chelsea that he managed to keep out two very high profile signings in Eden Hazard and Oscar from a role which is arguably their most effective in the team too.

Rafael Benitez often used the trio side by side and although it took a little time to get the consistency right- when they were on form teams had a right to be frightened. One of the things Benitez got right in his short tenure was getting the best out of the luxury of players afforded to him, even whilst the fans continually called for his head he managed to get them on board with the short term project by displaying his understanding of the game and letting Mata, Hazard and Oscar express themselves while the likes of Ramires and Mikel did the dirty work behind them. It was a great mix of creativity and steel which eventually led Chelsea to the Europa League trophy.

Despite Mata’s form, one could have seen a clash coming from the moment Mourinho was appointed. The Portuguese’s success in his previous spell at Stamford Bridge was not reliant on or even based on creativity and attacking flair, although of course it helped having players like Arjen Robben and Damien Duff in peak form. It was more the incredibly tight defence of Paulo Ferreira, John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho and Ashley Cole which was the breeding ground for Chelsea’s success. Upon closer examination, arguably Mourinho’s best achievement was the 2010 Champions League win with Inter Milan. Not the greatest team on paper, but again defence and defiance was the name of the day as they went on to European glory. His managerial nous was exposed at Real Madrid where the lavish signings built an expectation from fans and club hierarchy alike that beautiful football would be played. One could argue that this clash of philosophy made Mourinho’s two seasons in the Spanish capital a blot of his managerial CV. In the words of Ruud Gullit, ‘Mourinho shouldn’t be a very proud manager for what he has done in the past couple of years’.

With other clubs inevitably showing interest in Mata, it begs the question why would Mourinho not let him go and save the headache of an unhappy player? He claims that Mata needs to work harder but putting all the evidence together suggests he simply doesn’t know how to use him in the tried and trusted way of playing that has given him his managerial success. One could interpret this as a failure of management- the failure to adapt to the players put in front of you. At Chelsea at least, Mourinho was previously able to lavishly spend Roman Abramovich’s money- at Real Madrid the signings were made for him. Inter Milan is the anomaly, where Mourinho managed to get the best out the incumbent players. He had better hope he can replicate it this time around at Chelsea- the first step being Mata’s inclusion in the team. If he can’t then Mourinho may not leave Stamford Bridge as the hero he once was.