“I’m sorry I couldn’t make Juan a stronger player.”
Not the selection of words one would enjoy any manager choosing to use to describe you. It’s understandable, then, that Juan Mata got the hint that his future was no longer with Chelsea.
So, on January 26th, Juan Mata made successful his escape from Chelsea and approved a £37.1m transfer deal to Manchester United. No longer would he be asked to patrol the outer reaches of the Chelsea right flank and to track back and mark opposing players, tackle, attempt 50-50 headers and ground balls, and make clearances and interceptions. Well, maybe not as often as demanded by Jose Mourinho standards, that’s for sure.
Let’s face it. It was not a love affair between Jose and Juan. It was, by all accounts, the most bizarre of situations. Consider the backdrop of the past two seasons for Juan Mata.
Juan Mata was not just a good player for Chelsea. And he was not merely a starter. Mata was voted Chelsea’s Player of the Year for the past two seasons.
Prior to the arrival of The Special One, he was able to flourish under Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo, and Rafa Benitez—three very different managers that ran three markedly different football systems.
Yet across all of these different football styles, Mata was always the centerpiece running the Chelsea attack—the number 10 central midfielder linking the ball between the passes coming out from the back and the attacking wingers and forwards. Times were very good for Juan.
But that all changed, and changed abruptly when Jose Mourinho returned to manage Chelsea. Suddenly, Mata was a third wheel, the part that didn’t fit. He was simply the player that didn’t get it.
Not only was Mata no longer a starter, it became normal that come game time, he was an unused commodity and, seemingly, a forgotten body lost somewhere in the far reaches of the substitute seats, if even included on the roster. It had almost become a game. Where’s Mata?
With Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 system, where the midfield were expected to also track the opposing full back up and down the pitch and defend, or to be able to spring forward on a lightening fast counter attack—something that Mata characteristically does not do—Hazard, Oscar, and Ramires were preferred. Worse, after that trio, Schürrle and Willian were often next best in line. How bad could things get?
There is no question that Mata is extremely talented on the ball, but the consistent criticism by Mourinho and others is that he just does not have the skills needed in the new system. Are these fair characterisations?
Just how poorly has Mata performed this season compared to the cadre of preferred Mourinho alternatives? Was he the bottom rung on the ladder and did it make sense that he was primarily occupying the substitutes bench during the games prior to being jettisoned off to Manchester United or not?
To get a better handle on this situation, I’m going to compare the other Chelsea midfield performances and Mata’s composite performance through the current 29 games of the EPL season.
Let’s see what unfolds when Juan Mata’s efforts are held to the light against Hazard, Lampard, Ramires, Oscar, Willian, Mikel, and Schürrle, using a handful of Opta metrics that include (1) defending, (2) passing, (3) possession, (4) creativity, and (5) attacking.
First, let’s get an appreciation for how much action each player has seen this season in terms of game minutes because that will have an impact on the productivity level of his performance numbers. Only the Chelsea data for Juan Mata will be included in the analysis. Clearly, Mata’s limited opportunities will impact on the total production numbers he garnered in this analysis so it will be important to pay special attention to the efficiency metrics such as accuracy and “minutes between event” measures.
Defending: Ground 50-50’s
There is very little doubt that Eden Hazard excels amongst the Chelsea midfielders in both quantity and efficiency of winning 50-50 ground duels. It is also easy to see why Ramires, Oscar, and Willian are starting as many games in midfield as they are when it comes to getting “stuck in”, since their performances are also relatively strong. However, even though Mata does not shine in this metric, his performance is far from worst in the group: his minutes between balls won are superior to Schürrle, Lampard, and almost as good as the hard-nosed Mikel! He probably can’t be characterised as hard-nosed but a powder-puff he is not.
Defending: Aerial 50-50’s
Mata’s aerial defending is almost non-existent. Even taking into account his paucity of game minutes, his time between encounters is glaringly low. No argument here. He certainly is not making much of a contribution defending in the air.
Almost all of the Chelsea midfielders exhibit proficient tackling skills, with the surprising exception of the rather infrequent number of tackles that Eden Hazard is involved in. All of the players have good to excellent tackling efficiencies of between 70-88%. Juan Mata’s productivity of tackles is one of the lowest, however, his tackling efficiency is one of the highest (86%). Still, due to the small sample sizes, no statistical difference in performance is detectable among the array of players.
Passing: Open Play Passes
You’d better sit down. One of the stars of the show is Juan Mata. He and Mikel both generate impressive combinations of both quantity of completed passes and completion percentage in open play. Schürrle is the only midfielder whose accurate completion numbers are a bit low (about half those of Mikel and Mata’s). In fact, a comparison between Mata’s 88% and Oscar’s 82% reveals that there is a statistically significant difference between the two. More specifically, this 6% difference did not likely occur as an accident: the odds are in favor of Mata by about 312 to 1 that this difference is real!
Passing: Final 3rd Passing
The most important passing skill needed by any midfielder is in the attacking third of the pitch. Again, Mata exhibits stellar performance in both efficiency and quantity along with Eden Hazard. There is little to separate the performance of these two as they both distance themselves from the rest of the group with little separating them. A statistical comparison with Mata and Hazard reveals that, due to the smaller sample size of passes in the final 3rd, along with the smaller, 3% difference in completion percentages, the difference was not significantly different.
Mata’s 76 minutes between successful dribbles and 61% success rate places him second to Eden Hazard’s dazzling production numbers (almost 4 successful dribbles per game). His ball skills are dazzling, but in Chelsea’s new 4-2-3-1 system, priority is relatively lower than in, say, Rafa Benitez’s attack.
Willian (90) and Oscar (88) produce the most crosses, however, Mata does almost as well (75) and beats both with a higher completion accuracy. Lampard also achieves an extremely high accuracy of 40% and is competitive in terms of production level. Conversely, Oscar and Hazard are not strong performers in this category. Ramires, Mikel, Oscar, and Hazard all have accuracies on the low side (17%) and require a large amount of time between a completed cross; Ramires is even less productive, requiring an average of more than 3 games (309 minutes) to generate a single completed cross.
Further analysis with this metric shows that Mata exhibits statistically superior performance to both Oscar and Hazard in crossing the ball. More specifically, Mata’s 15% completion rate advantage over Oscar’s (32% to 17%) yields a statistically significant difference with odds of about 39 to 1 that it could have occurred accidentally. In other words, believe it, Mata crossing performance is reliably superior.
Creativity: Chances and Clear Cut Chances Created
Chances created are very similar to assists. They measure a scoring opportunity created by that may or may not end in a goal. It is a chance created by a shot on goal. Conversely, clear cut chances are situations where it is assumed to be very close to a “sitter” or “sure thing.”
Again, both Eden Hazard (79) and Juan Mata are the top performers in terms of productivity (quantity) for these metrics. And, again, Mata creates both measures more frequently than any other midfielder in the Chelsea squad.
Assists are the measure of a player creating a chance that ends in the ultimate payoff—a goal. Midfielders must create goals for other players. Think of it as the gold standard for judging the midfielder. It’s their bread and butter. For Chelsea, the top performance is the 7 assists by Eden Hazard. Wait a minute! Who is that generating 5 assists in second place? Juan Mata, that’s who. Only Hazard takes less time to create an assist (364) than Mata (417). Compare this to Ramires and Willian, who generate an assist about once every 1200 to 1300 minutes—that’s about 2 per season!
Attacking. Goal scoring
The last metric is the ability to score goals. It is almost viewed as frosting on the cake for many midfielders if they are great at “creating” for their teammates, however, the best are expected to score as well as to direct the attack of the team. Here is where Eden Hazard shines. He has generated 13 goals so far this season and is actually the leading goal scorer for the team. Of course, that is largely due to the failure of Chelsea’s front line to create much of an attacking threat, Jose Mourinho’s resistance to add any front line firepower during the transfer window and to continue to rely upon the relatively anemic production of Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres, and Demba Ba. This metric is also the one that pinpoints the impact of Mata being played on the wing instead of his desired central location. His inability to challenge and take on defenders and his reluctance to even attempt shots is highlighted in this measure. Consider these two measures: 677 minutes between shots on goal with a shooting accuracy of only 18 percent!
If you contrast Juan Mata’s current seasons with that of his stellar last season in which he scored 13 goals along with 20 assists from his central midfield position, you might question why Jose Mourinho felt the need to move Mata to a new wide midfield position that would require skills that he does not particularly possess.
Juan Mata does not have great speed. Never did. He is not a hard-nosed defender who is skilled at getting stuck in—never was. And he is not particularly renowned for his endurance and work rate, although it is adequate. He is not your man for managing the right wing in the Mourinho 4-2-3-1 system that requires a lightening fast counter, essential in the counterattack that Chelsea now require in their matches.
Clearly, Jose Mourinho must have anticipated the impact in performance this would have on Juan Mata. Placing Mata on the right wing established a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.
At the end of the day, Jose lamented, “I’m sorry I couldn’t make Juan a stronger player. I’m sorry I couldn’t make him happy.”
But I am, somehow, suspicious that Jose had decided early on that Juan would not be able to able to perform adequately in his new role—it was much more like a situation of fait accompli. It simply seemed that Jose never wanted Juan Mata as his number 10. Oscar was his preferred pick from beginning.
So it was bye-bye Juan. You are just not good enough. End of story. Except for what have we found.
Most of the numbers we have just examined here at the EPLindex show that Juan Mata is often among the middle to the top performer in a number of the metrics we have assessed. In fact, he seems to outperform some or most of the other midfielders in more than a few of these categories!
More specifically, Mata’s creativity measures were among the best of all Chelsea midfielders. Even his passing, goal assists, chances created, clear-cut chances created, and crossing skills were either the best or one of the best out of the entire array of Chelsea midfielders.
Jose Mourinho can make whatever reasons he would like to justify getting Juan Mata off the Chelsea payroll but he will have to do it in the face of what the numbers say.
Sure, Jose feels terrible that he couldn’t make Juan Mata happy. And heaven knows he tried. And I’m sure it broke Jose’s heart. Because Jose is just that kind of caring guy. Really, he is. As you can plainly see.