Juan Mata was Chelsea’s best player last season.
That is to say: He was named the club’s Player of the Year for the second time in a row following a campaign in which he scored 12 Premier League goals, assisted on 12 others and completed an impressive 85 percent of his passes, many of them made in high-risk areas of the attacking third.
But so far this term he has played only 64 drowsy, uninspired minutes at home to Aston Villa in which he looked every bit the player Jose Mourinho has been rumoured, but won’t admit, to have buried down his depth chart.
Perhaps the Spaniard is still unfit following the Confederations Cup and a knock picked up in preseason training, although his presence in the matchday squads for all three of Chelsea’s Premier League fixtures to date would suggest that argument simply doesn’t hold water.
Mourinho certainly hasn’t used it as an excuse.
When asked why Mata spent the duration of last month’s match against Manchester United on the bench, the Blues boss would only offer that he had his reasons and that he had “a duty to explain them to the players.”
“That I did,” he remarked, and given Mourinho’s man-management style he can be taken at his word.
Mourinho’s comments following the scoreless draw at Old Trafford seemed to indicate a big-squad, multi-option mentality at Chelsea in his second go-around at the London club, and he both left the door open for Mata to nail down a place in the team and promised to retain him through the transfer period which ended on Monday night.
“[Mata and I] have no problem,” he told reporters. “He’s a very important player for us. I want him to stay; he wants to stay.”
And, despite some late interest from Paris Saint-Germain, who were reportedly willing to spend £45 million on the 25-year-old, he did stay—although whether he thrives or merely lingers remains very much up in the air at the moment.
Terry, for one, would know all about the struggle to ingratiate himself with a manager.
Last season, due to injury and lack of form, the defender started only 11 Premier League matches and was an unused substitute in seven of Benitez’s final 15 matches with Chelsea in all competitions—a stretch that included the second leg of a Europa League semifinal and Premier League encounters against Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United.
Ahead of a February clash with Mancheseter City at Etihad Stadium, Benitez hinted that even Terry was droppable, saying, “Does he have to play? I’ll analyze the other options we have. We have four centre-backs, which is really good for me. He’s an important player for us—a great character and leader. But we still have enough quality in this position.”
Terry, for what it’s worth, has played the full 270 minutes of Chelsea’s Premier League schedule to date, picking up right where he left off when Mourinho departed Chelsea following a 1-1 draw at home to Rosenborg in 2007.
Against United at Old Trafford he was imperious—winning balls in the air, intercepting passes, achieving clearances and reading the game at a level that constantly had him in position to both close down space and generate turnovers.
It was a performance to remind onlookers that he remains very much a “Mourinho player.”
But what, exactly, is a “Mourinho player?” And why doesn’t Mata seem to be one?
In his first press conference after being rehired as Chelsea manager, Mourinho vowed to leave the past to the past; to leave last season to last season.
Perhaps Mourinho knew that toward the end of last season Mata had scored only two goals in 18 games to finish the campaign, assisting on just seven others over the same stretch.
But assuming he didn’t, and that the past had been left to the past, he arrived at his favourites for the 2013-14 campaign based on what he saw in training and his understanding of what each player available to him was capable of offering.
Oscar, for example, will have carved his name into Mourinho’s consciousness from the very beginning.
In the three Premier League starts he has made under his new manager, the Brazil playmaker has passed the ball at 85-percent efficiency while completing an average of four defensive actions per match. Exceptionally adept at retaining possession for a player his age, the 21-year-old is as comfortable laying off a clever ball or playing a neat one-two as he is rushing back to lend a hand in deeper areas.
Such well-rounded contributors will always have the inside track to a Mourinho team sheet, which is also why Eden Hazard has played for all 270 minutes of Chelsea’s Premier League campaign to date.
The Belgium international is also more accurate in his shot placement than Mata and so far this term is creating more than three scoring chances per game—about what the Spaniard generated last season. He also has the sort of explosiveness few Premier League players, never mind his teammate, can match. And he isn’t afraid to chip in on the defensive side of the ball, either.
Even Andre Schurrle, who was acquired from Bayer Leverkusen during the summer, completed 45 interceptions in the Bundesliga last season—more than twice what Mata managed.
If it’s true that Mourinho, in fact, doesn’t fancy Mata as a starter in his Chelsea 2.0, the player’s inferior tactical nous when compared to that of his teammates is likely the predominant reason. The Portuguese will want at least two of his three playmakers behind the striker in sound positions rather than generally scheming—defensively committed rather than awaiting a turnover.
The other can be the sort of dynamic presence he already has in Hazard, and given the Belgian’s Achilles injury picked up on international duty it would hardly be surprising to see Willian, and not Mata, given the nod in the event the 22-year-old cannot travel to Everton on September 14.
None of this is to suggest Mata is a poor player, or anything less than a very good player. After all, he does have those Player of the Year gongs.
Not that they matter much to Mourinho.