This piece originally appeared on www.sabotagetimes.com.
We are coming up to awards season and committees are drawing up shortlists left, right and centre. While Gareth Bale will fancy his chances of picking up the gong for Best Actor, the eventual winner of the most important prize of all – PFA Players’ Player of the Year – is much harder to predict.
It has been a strong year for goalscorers. Luis Suárez has worked on his hitherto wonky aim and added accurate finishing to his already-formidable arsenal. Robin Van Persie has sustained the form that saw him win last year despite making the potentially destabilising move from Arsenal to Manchester United. Swansea’s Michu would win a lot of votes if the polls were conducted in Football Hipster circles.
At the other end of the pitch, Jan Vertonghen has adapted to the Premier League with consummate ease despite being moved from pillar to post to cover for injured colleagues for much of the campaign. Another Swansea player, Chico Flores, has had an excellent season. Leighton Baines has continually been Everton’s most potent attacking threat from left-back, so much so that he is now arguably the iconic player of David Moyes’ reign at Goodison Park.
Honourable mentions should also go to Sandro and Santi Cazorla, whose consistently exemplary midfield contributions have carried their sides through difficult matches and inspired positive results when dropping points seemed inevitable. If there is any justice, however, all of these players will be overlooked in order to recognise the frankly unbelievable performances of Chelsea’s Juan Mata.
In what has been a typically tumultuous season at Stamford Bridge, Mata’s contribution has been steady and reliable, and not in a Denis Irwin, every-game-was-a-seven-out-of-ten way. In so many games in 2012-13, he has been the difference maker.
Mata is Chelsea’s top scorer and their leading provider of assists. Of the Blues squad, only Frank Lampard takes more shots per game and only John Obi Mikel and David Luiz play more passes per game. In terms of chances created, Mata’s 2.7 per game is not only the highest at Chelsea, it is bettered by only four players in the entire Premier League.
It is not just that he has ridiculous numbers but the fact that he is produced in the majority of the big games this season: he has scored against Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United and given assists against those three sides plus Liverpool and Shakhtar Donetsk.
Perhaps most remarkably of all, Mata has done this despite being Chelsea’s known dangerman. Though he is always the focus of opposition defenders, he always finds space and has a solution in his mind before the ball has arrived at his feet.
His movement is genuinely brilliant: characteristic of the way Spain have dominated football since Euro 2008 but with an added directness that makes him perfectly at home in the relentlessly frenetic environment that is English football. To watch Mata in action is not only to see how football should be played but how our youngsters should be taught at grassroots level.
This is admittedly where the writer’s personal ideology intrudes: in the last two years, we have seen David Silva and Cesc Fàbregas overlooked despite having incredible seasons. Silva should have won last year, when the award went to Van Persie; Fàbregas was left empty-handed by Bale’s victory in the previous season. The Spanish trio are among the best players ever to have played in England and failing to recognise their brilliance could potentially lead to a failure to absorb their influence.
While we are finally producing players who seem technically competent, the likes of Jack Wilshere, Tom Cleverley and Josh McEachran need a standard bearer, a revered reference point to whom the common man could link them. As it is Wilshere is being slated as the next Steven Gerrard. No-one needs another Steven Gerrard.
Simply by recognising the country’s best footballer, English football’s players would give themselves that creative figurehead and move away from the sort of lazy thinking that routinely sees the league’s top scorer or most-hyped English performer walk away with the accolades.
No matter how the argument is contextualised – be it with statistics, aesthetics or ideology – the answer remains the same. The 2012-13 Player of the Year should be Juan Mata.