This piece originally appeared on Plains of Almería.
In the two years since his move from Valencia, Juan Mata’s impact at Chelsea has been unparalleled: twice the club’s Player of the Year; once Players’ Player of the Year; Man of the Match in the 2012 FA Cup Final win; assister of both Didier Drogba’s Champions League final equaliser in Munich and Branislav Ivanović’s Europa League final winner in Amsterdam. In short, he has become the main man in a squad made up of main men.
At 25, Mata, along with fellow fleet-footed flair-merchants Eden Hazard and Oscar, represents Chelsea’s long-term future – and not just on the pitch. Quietly spoken, university-educated and a fan of backpacking adventures with his boyhood friends, his humble off-field personality has gone some way to repairing Chelsea’s unwanted image as a playground for the bad boys of English football.
With his effortless combination of ability and affability, Mata is held in such regard by football fans from Kensington to Korea that the only reservation many have expressed about José Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge relates to the potential clash in styles between manager and star player.
When I think of Mourinho’s first spell at Chelsea, I am reminded of the final warning of Ash, the Nostromo’s android Science Officer in Alien. In this Chelseafied version of events, the decapitated robot’s last words aren’t delivered to Sigourney Weaver, Yaphet Kotto and Veronica Cartwright, but to Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and Rafael Benítez; it addresses the helpless managers who, between 2004 and 2006, couldn’t even catch a glimpse of Chelsea’s slipstream, let alone catch them.
“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? A perfect organism: its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality. I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.”
The first incarnation of Mourinho’s Chelsea was Alien’s xenomorph made human, cloned eleven times and dressed in blue. For two years the Premier League had no answer – no Ripley to save the day and blast the monster into space. It was at times hard not to feel sympathy for the Blues’ so-called competitors.
Even in the years following the Portuguese’s departure in 2007, the merciless survival instinct of the xenomorph never fully left the squad. Mourinho may have walked away but his shadow never followed. No matter how strong the challenge or impossible the odds, Chelsea generally found a way to adapt to the harshest surroundings, reach structural perfection and surpass any opponent’s level of hostility.
Now that the Special One is back, an immeasurably changed Premier League braces itself for yet more devastatingly ruthless survivalism. Any and all silverware is ready to be redirected to West London. However, if José’s Chelsea 2.0 is as dominant as the earlier model, it will be so in a different way.
The callous streak will always remain part of Chelsea’s DNA but the years between his spells in charge have seen an element of artistry introduced to the xenomorphic gene pool. No player represents this evolution more than Mata.
While Mourinho’s first Chelsea were characterised by impenetrable defence and sucker-punch counter-attacks, Mata’s Blues are known for the beauty of their play: their deft movement, triangulations and tiki-taka combinations. Their number ten’s proactive use of his teammates, overlapping full-backs in particular, is one of the side’s most potent attacking weapons.
Despite impressions to the contrary, Mata will continue to be Chelsea’s main man under Mourinho. The Special One’s reputation may stem from the success of his über-secure lightning-fast counterattacking teams but he has always made visionaries integral parts of them. At Porto, he had Deco; at Inter, Wesley Sneijder; at Real Madrid, Mesut Özil. All flourished.
Furthermore, Mata is a more adaptable player than each of those listed above. While learning the game at Real Oviedo and Real Madrid C, he filled in across the frontline, learning to play in every attacking position and role from out-and-out winger on the left to second striker, via advanced playmaker and inside-out winger on the right.
His intelligence and humility gave him the understanding that his versatility works for and not against him: being asked to play in several different positions never struck him as a sign that he lacked the coach’s respect or trust, as it does so many other footballers – it just meant that he was seen as good enough to hurt the opposition from a different angle every week.
Mourinho will not tinker quite to that extent but he will make the most of Mata’s capabilities. Assuming he sticks with his favoured 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-2-3 formations, there are only really two positions in which Mata can start: in the number ten role or wide on the right with licence to come inside and overload the centre.
The returning manager has spoken of his desire to use Mata in the latter role in the same way that he converted Joe Cole to such memorable effect in 2005-06. The problem here is obviously that Mata’s defensive contribution is occasionally questionable. In Roberto Di Matteo’s final game in charge of the Blues, for example, Mata’s failure to effectively track the runs of Juventus’ Stephan Lichtsteiner led to an early exit from the Champions League.
Similarly, José’s undoing in Madrid was his reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo, another talismanic attacking figure for whom defensive work appears to be an opt-in activity. In the 2012 Champions League semi-final, as well as the four games played against Borussia Dortmund last season, Ronaldo’s refusal to protect his full-back reduced his side’s chances almost to zero.
With these lessons having been learned, both Mata and Mourinho will realise how critical it is that the defensive aspect of the game is not neglected. With them in mind, we will probably see Mata starting the increasing number of Premier League gimmes wide on the right, primarily linking with the central forward and overlapping full-back, while featuring in the freer central playmaker’s role in away games against the Blues’ title challengers, allowing a more defensively reliable runner like Victor Moses to start on the flank.
Whatever happens, it will be consistently fun to watch Chelsea this season for the first time arguably since Carlo Ancelotti left in 2011. The squad is more than good enough to regain the title and now that they have a manager capable of impressing a sense of stability and unity on the group, we can all look forward to the Blues not just winning but doing so in style.
Mourinho’s original Chelsea may have had structural perfection and supreme hostility but the new version could well live even longer in the memory. If it does, Mata’s panache will be the main reason why.