Not many people can be universally liked for their ability on the pitch. Such is life that someone will always have a gripe or obligatory comment to bring players down. Juan Mata is not one of these players. In fact he is loved for his modest demeanour as well as his ability.
It is an undeniable fact that Mata is one of the best players in the world, and the stats corroborate this. In his first full season with Chelsea, Mata created a total of 102 chances, including 13 assists and scored 6 goals. He created on average 3.6 chances per game and one chance every 25 minutes, with the likes of Lampard and Ramires creating 55 and 20 chances respectively. Mata, then, created 47 and 82 more chances in his first season than his Chelsea team-mates.
Overall, he was beaten by Manchester City’s David Silva, who was lauded as the most complete midfielder in the league, yet managed to create only 2 more chances and 3 more assists during the season than his compatriot at Chelsea. In addition, Mata ended the year having lifted the Champions League trophy, and added the fans’ player award and player’s player of the year award to his mantelpiece.
Last campaign represented a fantastic year for Mata, then, and presumably a very difficult one to surpass. Yet he seems set to repeat last year’s excellent performance after a fantastic start to the season. So what is allowing the Spanish maestro to be even better this season than he was last?
Mata in 2012
Before showing why Mata is playing better this season, it is important to show that he is actually perfroming at a higher level.
Mata already averages a total of 3.1 chances created per game in the 751 minutes he has played, compared to last season where in the same amount of games he averaged 2.6 chances per game.
In addition to this, Mata has created 6 assists, which is more than a third of the total amount of assists he created for the whole of the 2011-12 season.
He has also scored 4 goals, which is more than two thirds of his total for last season. Already Mata is on his way to surpass his total amount of goals scored and assists created, with only ten games played. Moreover, Mata only participated in 8.3 of these games.
4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1
One contributing factor which must be linked to Mata’s increase in form this season is Chelsea’s switch of formation. With a move into a more central role, Mata has been able to receive and use the ball in far more dangerous areas. When stuck out on the left-hand side, running at full backs, Mata does not pose the same dangerous threat that he does when allowed to ghost into the gaps between midfield and defense, unleashing the likes of Torres, Hazard, or Ramires.
As the diagram shows, this season Mata has been able to more easily move into central positions from where he can pick up the ball and create an assist or a telling pass, with the majority of his passes in the game against Newcastle coming from a central role, a game which Chelsea won 2-0. Although the more dangerous passes from the central areas were generally incomplete in this game, the intent was there, and the more Mata plays in this role, the more passes will find their way into the feet of Torres and company.
Below shows how this new role is more accommodating for Mata, as he can interchange with Chelsea’s other attacking midfielders and find the space which allows him to be in the most dangerous positions of the pitch. In these zones Mata can not only make more telling passes, but score more goals.
For example, here Mata and Hazard have switched positions, Hazard coming more central, taking defenders away from the run of Mata, who can ghost into the space behind the defense and slot home.
The Evolution of Chelsea
The new players recruited by Chelsea this season have also had a massive impact on Mata’s performances. As suggested, the likes of Hazard gives a new dimension to Mata’s play, as he now has a top quality, intelligent player whom he can play into the space behind or switch positions with. This allows Mata to get in behind and score more freely.
However, probably the most important signing this season, for Chelsea and Mata, is Oscar. With Oscar dropping and dictating play from deep, Chelsea have a player who can consistently and effectively get the ball forward to the feet of Mata. For example, this season Oscar has an open-play pass completion rate of 86 per cent, a final third pass completion rate of 75 per cent, and an attacking zone pass completion of 78 per cent.
This shows Oscar’s importance from a passing standpoint, as when he makes a pass it generally finds its target. This is vitally important to Chelsea, as getting the ball into the feet of Mata is essential. Without this, Mata’s, and therefore Chelsea’s, attacking edge is negated, as the quick ball into the play-maker’s feet is stopped and the counter-attack is halted. This slows the play down and makes it much harder for Chelsea to create chances as they are not as equally adept at this style of play without the presence of Didier Drogba, who could play with his back to goal and create chances at will.
There are a number of contributing factors that may have allowed Mata to grow as a player this season, many of which are not measurable, such as confidence, maturity, and so on. However, it is absolutely clear that this season’s rise in quality is in major part down to a mixture of tactics and a freshness which has been brought to Chelsea from the new arrivals, especially in Mata’s case.
More goals are being scored and chances created to the point where he has nearly, already, eclipsed the both totals from last season. If this form continues, by the end of the season Chelsea may be about to eclipse the glory of last season with Mata at their centre.
All of the stats from this article (apart from the 442 StatsZone image) have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.com – Subscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) Check out our new Top Stats feature on the Stats Centre which allows you to compare all players in the league & read about new additions to the stats centre.