Juan Mata has been out of luck under Jose Mourinho and for a long time nobody understood why. The only Premier League game that he has started to date was against Aston Villa at home, and that appearance was limited to 65 minutes.
Up until the victory over Fulham pundits and reporters offered, for the most part, uneducated guesses on why Mata wasn’t starting. Some suggestions were feasible, like the idea that Mourinho didn’t rate Mata. However other allegations, like Mourinho having a personal problem with Mata or in fact having a vendetta against all Spanish footballers, were outlandish not worthy of writing.
After Chelsea’s 2-0 victory over Fulham Jose Mourinho addressed the predicament directly giving a clear and decisive explanation for why he had chosen to go against public pressure, and start Oscar ahead of Mata. These next quotes are the most important things that he has said to us all season:
“The ideal is to play always in the high block, is to recover the ball very, very fast, is to have the ball and to build well, and to have always control of the game, and to be proactive and not reactive. We are doing that in a certain point, because in every game we have always big percentages of the ball, but the point is to have the ball possession and to use it in the proper way. We are not, in my opinion doing that very well, especially when the opponent close (us down) so much.”
So what Mourinho wants is for Chelsea to play their football in the opposition’s half, either with the ball at their feet or by putting absolute pressure on the opponent’s possession. What he describes is classically attributed to Barcelona, that when they lose the ball to close down the other team rapidly and as a unit; to swarm them and through this regain possession.
To be “proactive and not reactive” is the most telling statement of all. He doesn’t want his team to allow the opposition to come towards them, creating a situation in which Chelsea must react to the threat. No. He wants his players, attacking midfielders and all, to attack an opposing player as he receives a pass, to prevent him from turning into space, to not allow them as a whole to compose themselves.
Oscar in this Philosophy
When asked if he was happy with Oscar’s performances, Mourinho replied:
“Yes I am. I understand lots of people like Mata, and you believe that Mata should be in that position. I think that the evolution of the team and the way I want to play with Mata and Oscar together – I want that. But for that Juan has to work and has to adapt to a certain way of play, because I am not ready to change Oscar’s position. I think Oscar as a number 10 is a player that give’s us creativity, but at the same time when we want to press up Oscar is a runner, Oscar is a player capable of pressing.”
Essentially Oscar participates in the philosophy that Mourinho wants to install.
Mata in this Philosophy
“Juan has to learn the way I want to play. He has to be more consistent, he has to be more participating when the team lose the ball possession, and I think it is not his fault. It is just the consequence of the way he was playing in the last years, and since he arrived in Chelsea, Chelsea was playing very defensive football, Chelsea was playing with a low block all the time. Now the situation is completely different.”
In three paragraphs spoken live on television to Sky Sports Mourinho told us everything we should want to know about his philosophy, and the exact reason for why Chelsea’s two time player of the season was no longer as involved.
However, he made it clear that he wants Mata and that he rates Mata. He recognises Mata’s strengths, and all he is doing is also recognising Mata’s weaknesses in relation to the way in which he wants to play. Mata may be ahead of Oscar in an attacking sense, but he is too far behind him, not necessarily in a defensive meaning, but in that he is not working as hard for the team, and so is affecting the well-oiled, efficient machine that is the whole when it is without the ball.
Mourinho is often mistaken for a defensive coach, but what often comes across as a defensive mentality is perhaps more fairly attributed to a coach who is efficient. Not just efficient in attack but in defence too, and up until Fulham Mata was taking away from the efficiency of the whole; as Mourinho saw it anyway.
However Mata has played 135 minutes out of 180 against Swindon and Tottenham since then, and although he didn’t start at White Heart Lane, he was an effective second half substitute and provided the equalising assist. Mourinho has praised his efforts in both games, stating that when a player comes in his direction, it is the natural tendency for him to go in that players direction as well. A change in Mata’s game has been noticeable, especially in the second half against Tottenham, and it seems that the Spaniard is reacting positively to Mourinho’s words.
A comparison of Mata to himself pre and post the Mourinho interview, and a comparison to Hazard and Oscar over the whole Premier League season sheds light on why the situation was what it was, and impressively displays how Mata has taken the manager’s words to heart.
Mata against Villa vs Oscar & Hazard across the season
Mourinho commented on how the way that Mata plays is as a result of the way that Chelsea have played their football over the last couple of seasons. So the fact that he doesn’t close down the opposition quickly and help the team to heap pressure on the opponent is not necessarily his fault.
In 2012/13 Mata won possession on average every 18 minutes, and entered into a ground 50-50 every 12.53 minutes. These are the most interesting stats for looking into how he is changing his game, because they represent the amount of pressure that he is putting on the opponent.
Against Aston Villa Mata won possession only every 22 minutes, and averaged at a 50-50 tackle attempt every 16.25 minutes. Moreover none of the 3 times that he regained possession were through tackles.
Oscar and Hazard’s work rate without the ball has been better, although not significantly so. Over the whole season Oscar has won possession every 21 minutes and Hazard every 18 minutes. Oscar has entered a 50-50 challenge every 11 minutes, but Hazard has impressively done the same every 5.76 minutes!
So through comparing averages we can see that Mata’s efforts at closing down and attacking the opponent have been behind both Oscar and Hazard. Hazard especially has put in a lot of effort to work for the team.
Mata against Tottenham
There were vast improvements in Mata’s pressuring duties against Tottenham. From winning the ball just three times in 65 minutes against Villa, Mata won possession 7 times in 45 minutes against Spurs! That means his minutes per possession won was 6, better than Oscar (28) and Hazard (14).
Moreover he entered a ground 50-50 every 6.43 minutes, again more than Oscar (16.6) and almost as often as Hazard (6.27). Most importantly, it is again a massive improvement from his work against Villa where he only entered a ground 50-50 every 16.25 minutes.
And so the evidence of Mata adapting his game is there for all to see. Indeed the effort he was making was very obvious against both Swindon and especially Tottenham. Certainly I think the reason why Mourinho described the second half as the best period of football of the season was because of how the whole team, including Mata, put Spurs under such pressure when they were in possession.
It should be obvious, now, what the Mourinho philosophy will be at Chelsea, and hopefully it is also clear as to why Mata hasn’t been as involved as Oscar. (If anyone is also looking for a reason for Kevin de Bruyne’s exclusion then perhaps it is for the same reasons.)
Or, you know, maybe the coach just has a vendetta against Spanish footballers.