Before the start of the season few people would have questioned the fact that Juan Mata was Chelsea’s best player. The Spaniard was the clubs back-to-back player of the year and was an incredible presence in the Premier League last season, scoring and assisting freely. Yet, at the start of the 2013/14 season he appears to be struggling to get into the side and is certainly not going to be pushing for the no.10 role he made his own last season, so why is he being side-lined?
Mourinho wants Oscar as the no.10
One thing that Jose Mourinho has made very clear is that he wants to build a team around Oscar. Mourinho was recently quoted as saying ”In this moment, Oscar is my No10 and, if somebody tells me that Oscar is not Chelsea’s best player since the beginning of the season, I’d have to disagree.” The reason for this is that Oscar is the most adept of any of Chelsea’s attacking midfielders to drop back into the midfield and provide an extra body in a defensive regard. Oscar completed six tackles against Fulham, more than any other Chelsea player:
This was crucial as Chelsea tried to hurry Fulham in possession. It is difficult to imagine Juan Mata or Eden Hazard providing the same degree of contribution in the no.10 role in a defensive regard. Oscar’s tactical awareness in this role is clearly very good and he is probably as capable of playing in a central midfield three, as he is at playing in more advanced areas. This is at the core of the fact that Mourinho prefers Oscar in the no.10 role and is why he will continue to do so throughout the duration of the season.
One issue, that has been downplayed by the press is the fact that Juan Mata has not really had a pre-season for Chelsea. The Spaniard played an awful lot of games last year, played in the Confederations Cup and then picked up an injury meaning that he did not get a pre-season with Mourinho. Further to that, his niggling injury carried over into the start of the season which is why he missed the season opener versus Hull. It is possible that he was left out of the squad versus Fulham because he’d featured in the last two games and is not actually 100% fit. This might not be the over-riding cause, but it is probably a factor in the marginalization of Juan Mata.
Is there a role for Mata in the side?
Just because Mata won’t be the no.10 doesn’t mean he can’t play an important role for Chelsea. The Spanish international’s most obvious role is as a right winger, cutting in something he did for the club at times under AVB, as well as playing as a left winger. This shows that he is capable of playing out wide, as well as as the no.10. Mourinho likes left footers cutting in from the right and Mata is the only left footer of Chelsea’s six attacking midfielders.
This is the most obvious place for Mata, although he hasn’t had much joy in getting into the side in this role, except for against Aston Villa for just over an hour. Juan Mata created 95 chances for his team-mates last season, so it is clear wherever he plays that he can create and cause problems for the opposition.
As a winger though he has to defend more than he would have as a no.10. Most notably he’d have to track his opposite number, something he is not naturally good at. Mourinho clearly sees this as a major deficiency in Mata’s game. But to single him out for his defensive contribution is unfair, given that Hazard is also poor at covering his full-back. Against Basel for example Hazard barely covered Ashley Cole, who was regularly doubled up on by the opposition right flank.
It’s possible that a combination of fitness and a concern over his defensive contribution has led to Mourinho side-lining Mata. Mourinho is known as a great man manager, despite the high profile fallouts he had at Real Madrid. One issue could be that he is leaving Mata out in order to get a response from him and re-integrate him back into the squad. If Mata does work hard and get his head down there is no reason why he can’t force his way back into the side, but he will have to seriously take on board Mourinho’s recent criticisms of him.