Everybody who witnessed Juan Mata’s first two seasons in English football will know exactly what this little man is all about – and exactly why Chelsea must hold on to him.
The Blues brought in the 25-year-old midfielder from Spanish side Valencia two seasons ago when Andre Villas-Boas was boss – most people will say it was probably the only good thing AVB did in his short period as boss at Stamford Bridge.
Many thought after Fernando Torres’ poor displays since his arrival the previous January for a club record £50 million that Mata, his fellow countryman, was brought in to work with Torres and supply more chances for him so maybe Chelsea would start seeing the best out of the former Liverpool striker.
Upon signing Mata even said: "Fernando got me excited about the thought of coming here. He said it would be good for me here, and that me and him together could be good. I also talked to my family and friends about it as well."
His first season ended in a way no-one imagined by the club winning the FA Cup – a game where he picked up the man-of-the match award.
And then his side came from nowhere to win the Champions League. Mata played a vital part in the team’s success in both of these competitions – especially the Champions League where he set up Didier Drogba’s equalising header.
Mata’s second season proved to be the season where he became Chelsea’s star man – constantly involved in all competitions for the Blues. Again, Mata finished the season with European glory, this time in the form of the Europa League. In the final he set up Branislav Ivanovic’s winning header – again from a corner.
Individually since his arrival at Chelsea he has been voted the club’s player of the year for both seasons, and the club’s player’s player of the season last season. Mata is clearly appreciated by Chelsea fans, players and opposition sides considering the apparent interest from Tottenham and Arsenal since his position has become in doubt.
Last week speculation over his future hit its peak when Jose Mourinho signed attacking midfielder Willian from Shakhtar Donetsk. While Chelsea already have a considerable amount of options in that part of the pitch with the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar, Kevin De Bruyne and Andre Shurrle all already fighting for a place, none of these players are quite of the same mould as Mata.
While players like Willian, Hazard, Oscar, De Bruyne and Shurrle are faster and more direct players; Mata is cool, calm and collected when in possession of the ball. Mourinho has been known to have preference for direct and fast players; his teams have been noted for their “power”. Mata doesn’t bring you power or speed physically, but his mind works quicker than any other player on the pitch.
He may like to dwell on the ball sometimes, which in turn slows down attacks, but he makes up for this in his creative vision and his positional play. How many times last season did we see Juan Mata threading through an almost impossible ball to assist a team mate – or even be the one himself that ends up one on one with a goal keeper.
Mata is a true modern day number 10, and his position should be always be in that central role of the attacking midfield three, allowing him to dictate play and thread balls through for the more direct and speed gifted players to latch onto.
Mourinho mentioned after their draw against Manchester United on Monday night that Chelsea messed up on six or seven simple passes while on the break. His answer to that problem was sitting on the bench that night - Juan Mata.
He is the club’s best corner taker, and from close range he is the club’s best free-kick taker. So he is guaranteed to pop up with goals or assists from a dead ball situation.
His build and style of play has drawn comparisons to one of Chelsea’s favourite legends in Gianfranco Zola. While Zola, like Mata, was a magician with the ball, he was 30 when he arrived and wasn’t playing in a Chelsea team that competes on all fronts like the current one. Mata is still only 25.
If Mourinho takes a step back and tries to find a way to fit Mata into his style of play, then we very well might see the coming of the greatest footballer in Chelsea’s history – and a period of success that hasn’t been seen before at the club.
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