In June 2013, when it was officially announced that Mourinho was returning to Chelsea, fans were overjoyed. Why wouldn’t they be? After all, he was the world’s best manager and had had unprecedented success at Chelsea in his first spell. But as soon as his appointment became news, tabloids were full of stories linking Juan Mata away from the club stating that Mourinho doesn’t like creative players. Mourinho came out and denied that Mata was being sold without being provided a fair chance and called on him to work harder on the defensive side of his game in order to start more matches ahead of his preferred number 10, Oscar.
The Spaniard made an effort, but it was deemed inadequate, and as a result, Juan Mata, who was Chelsea’s undisputed Player of the Year for two years running, was sold to Manchester United the very next year. Many came out to criticise Chelsea for selling the most creative player on their side and some like Arsene Wenger criticised Chelsea’s decision to directly strengthen their rival. (Van Persie says hello, Professor.) Oscar too did not have a stellar second half of the season, fading away, that led to more and more people criticising Mourinho for the decision. But the way things have transpired since then, the player United bought for a then club record GBP 37M+ was benched in favour of a youngster for the high-profile Manchester derby and the player who replaced him is the key cog in Chelsea’s juggernaut.
What did Mourinho want from Mata?
Mourinho had a vision for Chelsea that involved defending from the front. He was implementing a high pressing system that required the whole team, from the striker to the midfielders to the defenders, to actively partake in harassing the opponent when not in possession and not give them time on the ball. When Mata did not track his opposite number or charge at him or block his passing lanes, an imbalance got created. That imbalance now put the other midfielders under pressure, as they were essentially defending against 11 opponents with 10 men. When played on the flanks, Mata was a bigger bane than a boon. He used to drift infield to his preferred spot in the hole behind the striker and that used to leave full-backs exposed to counter-attacks.
Now, take a look at Chelsea’s current system. Oscar and Diego Costa fill the central attacking zones and press the ball, Willian and Hazard double up on the opposition winger with the full-back, and the central midfield can now function without the additional pressure coming from the forward areas. Chelsea are winning possession very often in the opposition’s third due to their high pressing game and this was not a regular feature when Mata played for Chelsea in the first season under Jose Mourinho. To get a better measure of their performances, let us analyse their stats, taken on a ‘per 90 minutes’ basis.
In Mourinho’s first season back, the now rampant Eden Hazard was just a pony, and the onus of being the most creative player in the team fell to Juan Mata. Mata did justice to it as well. But, Mata playing in the number ten position meant that Oscar was thrust to the right flank. That undermined his creative instinct, though he still played a crucial part in Chelsea’s build-up play. When Mata went to United, he was the team’s sole creative force. Struggling in mid-table, United turned to their club record signing very often to bail them out in tight situations. Meanwhile, Oscar was pulling the strings, organising the team’s attacks and defending from the front for Chelsea, as the Blues fought for the Premier League title till the very end and reached the penultimate stage in the Champions League.
Despite his best efforts, Mourinho could not get Mata to embrace the defensive aspects of the game. Oscar, who plays like a terrier, impressed Mourinho by his defensive work-rate. While there was a slight advantage in Mata’s favour while comparing the attacking stats, it’s a windfall in Oscar’s favour when the defensive stats are taken into account.
DISCLAIMER: Fouls committed is a positive metric for attack-minded players as fouls in attacking areas break play up.
While there was some advantage for Mata last season in the attack department, Oscar’s stellar start to the season has turned the tables on that this time around. Scoring key goals like the free kick against Crystal Palace or the peach of a goal from the outside of his boot against QPR, Oscar has been a key component of Chelsea’s play this season. His rotation with Fabregas paves the way for a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid Chelsea play during all their matches.
Mata, on the other hand, is seemingly on the way out of Manchester United after having fallen down the pecking order considerably. United’s new club record signing Angel Di Maria has displaced the Spaniard as their key creative force and Rooney, being the captain, has dibs over the number ten role, leaving Mata on the bench or on the right wing. When played on the right, he has naturally looked unimpressive and that has led to the youngster Adnan Januzaj taking his place.
Oscar has remained true to his standards, being crucial to Chelsea’s ‘defend from the front’ policy. He has upped his defensive game this season and has made a crucial contribution in several games for Chelsea by making a well-timed tackle or a block. Against Arsenal when Chelsea were already two goals up, Oscar was back defending and hoofing the ball clear. He has been improving each season and surely the only way for him is up.
Mata has disappointed all with his defensive strength, or lack thereof, again this season, and coupled with United’s lack of a defensive spine in the side, his error-prone nature and the reluctance in tracking back has led directly to many opportunities for the opponents, like the numerous chances and goal against Leicester.
Chelsea made the right call by cashing in on a player who didn’t fit their system when United came with a club record bid. The club always comes before the player so if a player needs to be shipped out if he’s not fitting into the system, he should be. As Dumbledore and Grindelwald once said, ‘It’s for the greater good’. A move to a slower league like the Serie A or the La Liga would do wonders to revive Mata’s career as he has clearly fallen from the heights he once was at Chelsea.