You won’t find too many players or supporters at Stamford Bridge who would openly speak out against Jose Mourinho’s management and leadership, but the Chelsea faithful have been left rather bemused this season by the Portuguese’s regular exclusion of playmaker Juan Mata, despite the fact the Spaniard has claimed the Blues’ Player of the Season award for the last two years in a row.
The Chelsea gaffer has regularly insisted the attacking midfielder is still a part of his first team plans, as the tabloids continue to fill the back-pages with rumours linking Mata to various clubs in the English top flight and La Liga, but actions speak louder than words, and the Spain international has played just 167 minutes of Premier League football this season.
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There are signs however to suggest Mata will soon emerge as a focal point of the Blues starting line-up once again, having come on as a half-time substitute at the weekend against Tottenham and significantly changing the game in Chelsea’s favour, grabbing a dead-ball assist from John Terry’s 65-minute header and adding a more creative dimension in the middle of the park that the Lilywhites struggled to deal with for the majority of the second half.
The 25 year-old’s inspiring performance and vitality to the final result last Saturday should serve as a warning to the Blues boss that he needs to wrap up Mata’s exclusion saga sooner rather than later.
Mourinho’s justification for leaving out arguably his most talented midfielder has been centred around accusations of a lack of defensive work-rate, which he thoroughly explained to great length in a post-match interview following Chelsea’s recent 2-0 victory over Fulham.
As we know from the Portuguese’s previous tenure in West London, defensive contribution is a must for every player in a Mourinho-designed side, but the Chelsea manager is particularly insistent upon improving Mata’s defensive game as he anticipates the Spain international’s future at Stamford Bridge is almost exclusively on the right hand side, rather than in the No.10 role he took up last season, which has now been handed to Brazilian wizzkid Oscar.
The 22 year-old is by no means the finished article and is still adapting to the more central and integral role, although it should be noted that he’s found the net twice already this season and throughout his time in West London he’s shown the potential to become a world-class No.10 in the not too distant future. Moving him from the right into the middle of the park was a transition process that had to happen sooner or later, so it may as well be now, even if it comes at Mata’s temporary expense.
Similarly, the Blues have splashed out £47million combined this summer on two new attacking midfielders in Andre Schurrle and Willian, in addition to Belgian prodigy Kevin De Bruyne returning to Stamford Bridge to make a name for himself in England after an incredibly successful loan spell at Werder Bremen last season. Mourinho would insist he’s not the kind of manager who lets transfer fees dictate his selection policies, but not warranting £47million’s worth of new talent the opportunity to impress with an early stint in the first team would raise almost as many eyebrows as Mata’s recent exclusion, and could only hinder their efforts to settle in West London.
I have my own theories as well as to why the playmaking Spaniard was particularly targeted upon Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge. The Secret Footballer remarked in his book that very often when a new manager arrives, a certain player is singled out and subsequently dropped as a mark of authority, stating to the players that it’s ‘my way or the high way’.
Not that the Portuguese had anything to prove upon returning to arguably his most successful stomping ground, but it’s worth remembering that Mata’s inclusion in the starting line-up has been virtually guaranteed on a weekly basis over the past two seasons. Rightly so, considering the midfielder out-scored Chelsea’s entire strike force last year with twelve Premier League goals, in addition to twelve domestic assists, but it’s my speculation that the Blues manager wanted to keep the Spaniard’s feet on the ground and further improve his game rather than allow him rest on the laurels of his previous successes at Stamford Bridge.
But we are now nearly two months and six fixtures into the new Premier League campaign, and it’s time to bring the brief Juan Mata saga to a close.
Mourinho has proved his point, the new signings have been given the chance to impress at the Spaniard’s expense, and last weekend’s second-half performance against Tottenham was evidence enough of the positive and pivotal effect the 25 year-old has going forward, be it from the flanks or in last season’s No.10 role.
At the same time, Mata has clearly taken his manager’s criticisms on board. His first contribution at White Hart Lane was to track the run of Tottenham’s Kyle Naughton as he bombed forward from left-back, and at no point has the Chelsea midfielder spoken in protest against Mourinho’s selection policy. With the 2014 World Cup just around the corner and plenty of potential suitors for his services throughout Europe, the Spain international could have been far more vocal about his situation in a bid to force a January move, and he should be commended for his professionalism throughout.
But perhaps most important is the fact that the current Premier League campaign is already proving to be the most unpredictable yet, as was widely anticipated in the summer. Of course, the English top flight is a squad game nowadays, which has separated Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea from the rest of the pack in the past.
But with Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal all in full swing at the start of the season, fielding the strongest possible starting XI on a weekly basis is a must this year, and there’s no doubt the Blues first team are a far more effective outfit with Mata than without him, even if his defensive efforts are still open to scrutiny.
At the end of the month, the Blues face Schalke in Europe followed by Manchester City and Arsenal domestically in the space of seven days. To come away with results from all three contests they’ll need Mata’s influence, and therefore, it’s time to bring the Spaniard’s saga of temporary exclusion to an end.
Should Juan Mata be brought back into the first team fold?
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