As the final whistle blew at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night it became even clearer, to those who hadn’t already worked it out, that Jose Mourinho simply doesn’t know his best XI at Chelsea. A lot of players came in this summer, and there is a suggestion that Chelsea have barely touched upon the issues that the squad had at the start of the summer.
The increasingly apparent need for a world class central midfielder wasn’t addressed, and in Samuel Eto’o Chelsea have signed a striker that, as Mourinho put it “needs time”. It seems almost redundant to bother asking why they even signed Eto’o, rather than going for a more ready-made replacement. The problem was, they had spent a lot of money on attacking midfielders already, so at his newly acquired cut-price status Eto’o obviously seemed the best bet.
Despite Eto’o’s shortcomings, the question that really needs answering is: where is Juan Mata? Chelsea’s Player of the Year for the last two seasons has barely featured for the club since the start of the season. Obviously Mourinho will have his reasons but Mata’s performances over the last couple of seasons suggests he should be a focal point of Chelsea’s plans.
Since his arrival from Valencia, Mata has won his place in Chelsea fans’ hearts with his mesmeric ball control and his fantastic vision and passing. In two seasons he has scored 18 goals and registered 25 assists in the league, and he has won plaudits from all sides for his inventiveness and talent. Mourinho has spoken about how he won’t give his star players any luxuries, but with a player as professional and hard-working as Mata, you wouldn’t imagine his attitude is the problem.
If you compare Mata to other players of a similar ilk over the past few seasons Mata comes off favourably, except perhaps when in comparison to fellow Spaniard, David Silva. In the 2011/12 season, Mata created 102 chances whilst Silva created 104. The only other players, who play in the playmaker role, to really come close were Samir Nasri, also at Manchester City and Tottenham’s Rafael van der Vaart. Those two created 78 and 75 chances respectively but eventually finished some way off the Spanish pair. Interestingly if you move to minutes per chance created, then Mata moves back above Silva, but, they are both still ahead of their rivals. Clearly for the 2012/12 season, in terms of creativity at least, Mata and Silva were in their own personal battle.
Additionally, we have to remember that Mata was in his debut season in the Premier League, whereas Silva already had a year in England under his belt. This mythical “6-18 months” that foreign players seem to need to adapt is a strange one. When players show no signs of needing it, we talk about how well they’ve done to adjust quickly, whilst when players struggle at first we say that they need a bedding in period. Silva was an impressive, if not a little slow, starter at City but Mata instantly took to the Premier League and he slotted into Chelsea’s line-up seamlessly.
The following season there were further challengers in the attacking midfield area to compensate for the departure of van der Vaart to his former side Hamburg. Santi Cazorla joined Arsenal, Shinji Kagawa was signed by Manchester United from Borussia Dortmund and in the winter window Liverpool snapped up Phillipe Coutinho. This is without mentioning the two new creators that Mata’s own club had signed: Eden Hazard and Oscar.
In 2012/13, both Mata and Silva were outperformed by Everton full-back Leighton Baines in terms of chances created, and Mata was ousted from the top three by another Spaniard, Santi Cazorla. Whilst Silva was continuing from where he left off, Samir Nasri was disappointing at Manchester City, finishing with 54 chances created. How much of this was down to being played out of position by Roberto Mancini, or a genuine drop in form, is hard to say but Nasri’s form over last season was nowhere near the level observers had come to expect.
Eden Hazard and Oscar were a bit behind their illustrious team-mate, but they have the argument of being played on the wings, although that was probably because of Mata’s form. Also, that is only really an argument for Oscar, who is a natural number 10, because Hazard has forged his reputation on the left hand side. The Belgian finished the season with 65 chances created whereas Oscar managed 47, although Hazard did finish the season as the second highest number of assists in the league.
We haven’t touched on Shinji Kagawa yet, and that is because the Japanese playmaker was criminally underused by Manchester United, a trend which, worryingly, hasn’t shown any signs of changing. The former Dortmund man only made 17 starts in his debut season and it was obvious that Sir Alex Ferguson couldn’t figure out a way to fit him into his starting XI. Either that, or Kagawa was going through his adjustment period.
The other player yet to feature is Liverpool’s Phillipe Coutinho and he is harder to judge because he joined Liverpool during the January transfer window. Coutinho featured in 13 matches and if you consider that most of the players in question have played between 34 and 38 games you can times his stats by 2.8 to get a rough idea of his stats for a whole season. If we apply that rule, Coutinho would have registered 14 assists more than anyone else in the league, but in reality, he created 56 chances . The Brazilian has looked impressive in his few months in England but it remains hard to compare him to Mata, until he has a full season under his belt.
Obviously when compared to his peers Mata more than holds his own and he ably demonstrates why he is such a highly regarded player. In addition to this, his importance to Chelsea has become paramount, that it is incredulously obvious when he is missing. He oozes class on the pitch and the injection of passing quality he has brought to the Blues’ midfield is something that has long been missing. Frank Lampard will go down in Chelsea folklore, but his passing hasn’t always been the strongest part of his game. Other Chelsea midfielders are talented in their own right but they don’t measure up to the Spaniard’s technical ability. He played more passes than any other player at Chelsea last season and he also played more accurate through balls. He was responsible for 32% of Chelsea’s goals in the Premier League last season – either through goals or assists. In 64 games in all competitions he registered 34 assists, well over an assist every other game. Interestingly, of all the players compared over both seasons, the only player to make over 200 crosses was Mata.
Last season in the Premier League Mata led the way in terms of assists and this season Chelsea have, at times, missed his creative influence. At other times, their football has been sublime and they’ve only been let down by some poor finishing. On the other hand, during lengthy periods, they have looked toothless going forward and Mata would be a big help in unlocking those defence’s.
Of course with Mourinho you can never be certain of anything. There is every chance that Mata will start from the off against Fulham on the weekend, set up two and score himself, in a resounding Chelsea victory. According to recent history though, he could be a late or even unused substitute, as Chelsea stutter through another poor performance. The common denominator is that if Chelsea want to win matches, they need to start playing Mata.