Blog by: Aditya
The maelstrom that has been surrounding José Mourinho’s decision to bench Juan Mata for the most part of this season reached a crescendo when the Spanish fan-favourite was left out altogether from the squad that welcomed Fulham to Stamford Bridge.
While the call to leave him out was bad enough, what really riled the Blues faithful were the comments made by the Chelsea manager leading up to the game. Mourinho had said before the game:
“Oscar is my No 10 and, if somebody tells me that Oscar is not Chelsea’s best player since the beginning of the season, I would have to disagree. Yes. They (Mata and Oscar) can (play together), when he (Mata) adapts to it. He (Mata) played against Everton from the start and you can analyse his performance.”
“He played against Basel, not like Ba or Mikel coming in to rescue the game, but he came on when the team were winning 1-0 and had specific tasks. The reasons why he’s not playing so much are things I can speak about with him but not with you.” he added.
Mourinho has a reputation of being blunt and getting to the heart of the matter, even at the cost of sometimes being perceived as trenchant. This is at odds with his otherwise charming and winsome manner, and it is exactly this dichotomy in demeanor that allows the Portuguese to get away with most of the comments he makes that are tinged with slyness. His ability to make a point and say something while withholding the rest is unmatched.
But, when you get down to it, what are the for and against arguments for the perceived ill-treatment meted out to Mata at the hands of Mourinho? Let’s have a look.
A case for Mata
Friend and foe alike would testify that Juan Manuel Mata Garcia, simply known as Juan Mata, has been Chelsea’s best player in the two seasons since he joined from Valencia CF for a reported £23.5 million transfer fee, opting for Stamford Bridge despite heavy interest from Arsenal.
His precise passing, ability to thread a pass through a packed defence and fairly regular goal-scoring has made him one of the best midfielders in the Premier League. Mata is also lethal in leading a counter. His form throughout the two seasons has also given Spain’s Manager Vicente Del Bosque selection headaches, though of the type that he would welcome.
Under previous managers André Villas-Boas, Roberto di Matteo and Rafael Benítez, he was selected with regularity, and almost certain to play in Chelsea’s big matches, barring injury or fatigue. Last season, Mata took his performances up another notch and his interplay with new signings Eden Hazard and Oscar gave Chelsea a semblance of class in their play.
The “Three Musketeers”, as they are dubbed, terrorised opposition defences with some beautiful football; often switching positions and wrong-footing opposition defenders. Under Di Matteo, and subsequently Benítez, Mata was used as the creative hub of the team, playing down the centre as the traditional “number 10”, while Hazard and Oscar were interchangeably used as RAM and LAM. Mata justified this choice with aplomb, marshalling play and creating chances.
But, under Mourinho’s reign, Mata finds himself ostracised, with many feeling that Mourinho has frozen out the diminutive Spaniard without so much as giving him a fair chance. This does carry some weight to it as Mata has rarely featured for the Blues from West London this season.
Mourinho’s claim is that Mata isn’t as capable of filling the number 10 spot as Oscar, on current showing. But experts believe that it is Mata’s perceived lack of work-rate, in comparison with the Brazilian, that has led to him being dropped to second-choice.
A case for Mourinho
It seems that the ‘Happy One’ hasn’t been too happy with what he has seen of the Spanish playmaker in his second stint with Chelsea. Tasked by Roman Abramovich with turning Chelsea into a team that not only wins, but does so in style, the Portuguese manager has been quick to stamp his authority on the squad.
He’s brought in André Schürrle and Willian from Bayer Leverkusen 04 and Anzhi Makhachkala, respectively. Armed now with seven players who could play in three available spots in the starting line up, it was obvious that there were going to be casualties; and the first of which was Victor Moses, being farmed out on loan to Liverpool for the season.
In a month since the start of the season though, the other casualty has become evident; that of Mata. Oscar, Hazard, Schürrle, Willian, and even young Kevin de Bruyne have found first team opportunities aplenty, but the same cannot be said of Mata.
Mourinho has called for Mata to improve his game, to make it suit the football he expects his team to play. By that, of course, Mourinho means that Mata will have to bring in more defensive discipline to his game, and be willing to drop deeper to assist the defence and collect the ball.
This isn’t the first time that Mourinho has demanded this of a player. When Mourinho took over at Chelsea in 2004, Joe Cole had already been at the club for a year. Mourinho immediately set about trying to “improve” Cole’s game. After he was through with him, Cole’s game had changed, but opinions were split right down the middle as to whether the change was an improvement or not.
When a young Cole erupted onto the scene with West Ham, he was seen as a pacy and direct winger possessing good crossing ability and the habit of beating the full-back; the not-so-typical English winger, who was supposed to be more about beating the full-back rather than hugging the touchline and putting in crosses.
Mourinho reshaped Cole’s game, making him more defensively aware and willing to make the extra run to cover the overlapping full-back. But there was a price: Cole lost that element of unpredictability about him that put opposition full-backs on edge, his X-factor, if you may. While some applauded Cole’s new found defensive acumen, others still bemoaned the loss of a spontaneously effervescent winger.
It is akin to what Mourinho is attempting with Mata. If Mata does change his game to suit the needs of Mourinho, the question must be asked: what will we see the gifted player lose in order to achieve that?