Life goes on. When Roberto Di Matteo, who was so beloved to all of the Blues’ fans, was being let go as a manager, I cried a lot. Not because I felt that he was ‘the’ manager to lead the Blues on for the eons to come, his managerial inadequacies were well brought to light in Chelsea’s struggles in the PL during the dream Champions League run, as well as the subsequent season when the Blues were knocked out of the Champions League early, but because I loved him as a person, someone whom every Chelsea fan loved. The beaming smile, the passion for the club that gleamed through his eyes, his joy upon toiling against and beating Barcelona, his immense enthusiasm after defying all odds to trounce Napoli, the list goes on. But the hard to accept, bitter truth is that, he was not a manager possessing the technical repertoire of managing the teams at the very top. Then Rafa led us to the cheaper silverware of Europe, for which I am grateful, no doubt, but the subsequent appointment of The Special One made us forget the disappointment of letting Robbie go. Life goes on.
When The Special One, or The Happy One, as he’s now known, came to the helm at Chelsea, there arose many speculations that two-time Chelsea Player of the Year, Juan Mata, was not in his plans. Media outlets were abuzz with stories of Mata to Barcelona, PSG or any other club with a lot of money. While I was sure that Mata would not be leaving, I had my fears of him being isolated compounded when he didn’t play a lot in the early part of the season. Mourinho had publicly called on him to improve his defensive work-rate or remain on the bench. I covered that part of the saga on another article on this site. At that point, given the exchange of public quotes between Mata and Mourinho, it became apparent that Mourinho was engaged in an effort to make Mata a more complete player, challenging Mata to work more. On completion of that challenge, Mata would get to play more, Mourinho implied. And so he kept his word, Mata has played 1,116 minutes this season, which is a lot, and given the upcoming fixture list it wouldn’t be hard to envisage him notching up ~1,500-2,000 more.
However, of late Mata has been kept out by the sterling trio of Willian-Oscar-Hazard, with Schurrle too picking up minutes as a substitute. To fault Mourinho for keeping Mata out is absurd, given the current form the starting trio is in, I’d be surprised if anyone could break this combination in the form they are in. To be honest, Chelsea are a club where United’s sensation Januzaj would be no better than 6th choice, behind the aforementioned five players (7th if one counts the recently sold Kevin de Bruyne).
Such were Chelsea, overflowing with talent in the attacking midfield positions at the start of the season, with all of the above six, plus Thorgan Hazard, Lucas Piazon, Christian Atsu, Gael Kakuta, Cristian Cuevas, Victor Moses and Marko Marin present on the club’s books. Where Chelsea lacked was steel in the central midfield positions, which were addressed by bringing in Van Ginkel and Nemanja Matic in the two transfer windows that followed. What it exhibited, was that a balancing process was ongoing. Mourinho, along with the astute Director of Football, Michael Emenalo, was making a lopsided squad he inherited, more balanced. It required an influx of attacking midfielders in order to balance the depth chart as well as the finances, which was seen in the multiple loans, and the sale of Kevin De Bruyne to Wolfsburg for GBP 17M. In the remaining week of the window, Kakuta is near certainty to leave as well after being recalled from his unimpressive loan spell at Vitesse, falling behind fellow Blues Piazon and Atsu in the pecking order.
The fact that Chelsea signed Nemanja Matic a day after posting losses in the fiscal year led to several rumours of player departures from the club. Hazard was linked to PSG, Ba to several Turkish clubs and finally, Mata to United for a whopping price, varying between GBP 37 M to GBP 40M depending on the source of your information. If anyone actually believes that Chelsea are in the red regarding FFP finances, they’re kidding themselves. With the new Adidas deal and the TV rights deals kicking in from next season, there is little reason to believe Chelsea would be non-compliant with the regulations. If Chelsea needed an extra body in attack or midfield or defence, all they had to do was to send money over to the club and get their guy. Be it Diego Costa, Luke Shaw, Kurt Zouma or Arturo Vidal. They, unlike many Italian giants, didn’t have to sell in order to buy. So, why the potential Mata sale?
Mourinho, like his first term, is trying to set his squad up for the long-term, where not only glitzy football, but effectiveness and efficiency have to be intertwined. He wants Chelsea to play attacking football, with a willingness to track back and add numbers to the defence. Hazard, Oscar, Willian and Schurrle have all showed that they offer that flexibility. Mata meanwhile, has tried, though not so unsuccessfully, but his defensive involvement still leaves a lot to be desired. Being asked to track back, it has become evident that Mata’s effectiveness has waned in the past few months. On the other hand, Oscar is simply reveling in the #10 role. Goals, assists and key tackles, they have been a hallmark of the stellar season the Brazilian’s having. I cannot think of a player who could have performed better than Oscar in this system, such has been the standard of his performances!
Juan Mata is a beautiful footballer, but where he scores even higher is as a person, he’s nothing less than an angel re-incarnated. He could stop an ongoing massacre with a smile, winds would love to rustle past his beard and so on. All in all, he’s a Chelsea fan-favourite, and not without reason. There has been nothing against him to show he’s not a genial human and a hard worker in training. Also, his matchday stats also boost his case. In 93 appearances for the Blues, he has notched up 24 goals and 38 assists. He played a huge part in Chelsea’s Champions League and Europa League triumphs. Some really memorable moments, such as his goal at WHL against Tottenham, his long-range goal against Arsenal, the curler against Newcastle and the superb volley against Manchester United, to name a few.
What this season has against him is lack of dynamism, but he remains one of the finest lateral thinking players in world football currently. He has even proven to be consistent enough, with WhoScored giving him a rating of 7.31 and 7.24 in his first and second seasons. Even this season, in his 11 appearances, he has secured a rating of 6.87, which highlights the difficulties he has had since been asked to shore up defensively. Though Juan Mata belongs to a rare breed of footballers, it’s a breed Chelsea currently have aplenty of. Willian, since coming in this summer, has been very good, bringing in pace and power and intricate movements. Hazard, on the other hand, has been one of the league’s best players in the past few months, boasting a high number creative displays, dribbles etc. On the other hand, it’s not a position where United have a pressing need. In the three attacking midfield positions available, they currently have Rooney, Young, Kagawa, Valencia, and Januzaj. While Mata would be a massive (read : MASSIVE) upgrade over the current crop, they’re in a much more dire need of reinforcement at the heart of midfield, where Mata’s presence on the field requires further defensive presence, as Chelsea have seen.
In the Andre Villas-Boas era, when Chelsea lined up in a 4-3-3, Mata’s presence on the left wing left Ashley terribly isolated on opposition counter attacks. Once he was shifted to the middle of the attacking band in a 4-2-3-1, it became apparent that Chelsea’s midfield required further steel. It could be seen in games where Chelsea had little possession, like the epic ones against Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Mata was very much a peripheral figure. He looked out of place in those three matches because of his lack of defensive involvement. No, I’m not chastising Mata now that he’s probably leaving or nitpicking flaws in his game, I love Johnny Kills just as much as his most ardent supporter, but I’m not blind to the repercussions of playing Mata in a game you’re not expected to dominate. Sadly, for a plummeting Manchester United, there will be more such games than Chelsea would face.
If I were a United fan and Ed Woodward would tell me that GBP 37M is all he has in his purse to spend, I’d be furious if he spends all of that on Mata. United desperately need a functioning midfield in order to become competent again, and Fellaini and Mata aren’t the answers. However, if he were to tell me that the Mata buy is a precursor to a Rooney sale, it would make sense to me. Players like Pogba, Vidal, Herrera would have been ideal for United to pursue this winter, and truly, buying Mata makes no sense in that regard. But if they do go on and buy him, he’d propel them to a much higher level instantly. The way United are at the moment, it would surprise me if they qualify for the Champions League next term. That would mean fewer funds to spend in order to upgrade players. So the money being spent on Mata could be crucial in upgrading other positions.
Also, people who are saying that Mata is moving for a better contract need to know the man better. I agree that the deal will pay Mata nearly twice of what he earns at Chelsea, but that alone isn’t the driving force behind this deal. Mata values playing time over money and that is a virtual guarantee at United as compared to guys like Hazard, players like Young and Valencia are at a relatively lower level and much easier to displace. Plus, Mata at his best is the league’s finest player in my eyes, so he could break into almost any side at this moment.
Finally, being a Chelsea fan, my feelings about this are mixed. While I agree that Mata needs playing time and the fee being paid could offer a significant chance to strengthen the squad further, I cannot look past the pain of selling such a special player, who reminded me of Zola, to a direct rival. In secret I hope that PSG come with a similar bid and take him far away where my heart won’t hurt seeing him blitz day in, day out, or better yet, this deal falls apart. But it’s just a pipe dream… Anyway, thank you, Johnny Kills, it’s been an immense pleasure watching you play and you’re welcome at the Bridge any day. As they say, if you love someone truly, set them free. Life shall go on.