I don’t particularly care for the PFA awards too much and don’t think anybody should. Tony Barrett, a writer for The Times, describes them as ‘Pop Idol for footballers’ and I’m inclined to agree. Although the recipients are usually deserving, there’s no denying that popularity and the club you play for will always carry more weight than other, perhaps more empirical factors to consider. I can’t help myself but care a little bit about this year’s POTY award however because I’m adamant that one of the two Chelsea players nominated should be its recipient.
For the first time in a long time I feel there are multiple genuine contenders for the award. Robin Van Persie (the presumable favourite) has fired Manchester Utd to their most comfortable title win in years, Gareth Bale has developed into a world-class forward capable of deciding any game, whilst Luis Suarez has mastered this ‘false 9’ position for Liverpool to an extent where only Leo Messi can do it better, having added a clinical edge to his industrious creativity. For me it is a matter of fact however that Juan Mata has outshined them all.
With 18 goals and 30 assists to his name so far this season, he has maintained a level of such ruthlessly consistent efficiency, eclipsing any of his fellow nominees despite having played a considerable amount of games more. It’s a shame to admit but there’s been very few positive to things to write about Chelsea this season independent of Mata’s performances. In spite of spending £70million on young talent (most of which in hindsight was spent well) Mata has been the hub of our attacks all year and at times our reliance on him has been almost absolute. Indeed the first four PL fixtures which he didn’t start included a draw and defeat to QPR, a 0-0 at home to Fulham and an away defeat to West Brom.
This current Chelsea squad has its issues no doubt, especially regarding depth. Let’s not delude ourselves however, there is still world class talent in almost every position; and so the way in which Mata visibly not only improves the team as a collective but also raises the level of individuals around him, speaks volumes of his quality and of his ability as a creator and a leader in attack. There’s no argument to be had – he is Chelsea’s best player.
There are reasons beyond the statistical and influential however as to why Mata has been the Premier League’s best player this season. In a manner very few of the top players seem capable of these days, through his honest style of play and the way he conducts himself, he has managed to rise above the petty tribalism that scourges the English game. To be the main man at a club despised by neutrals the way Chelsea is, and to be respected and admired almost universally – well, that’s not easy. In a flawed culture, he never dives (unlike certain other nominees) he never tackles cynically, he never gets flustered or angry with the officials. During an immensely difficult season as well, poisoned by unexpected sackings and ridiculous racism rows, the Spaniard has been a much valued constant for his club. Even when he stood in firm support of a hated manager he provoked no angry responses; instead serving to unite a fractious and irritated dressing room and fan base, stepping up as a leader and match winner/saver when his team needed him the most.
To be subjective for just a moment, I think it’s probably worth pointing out that he is also just an absolute joy to watch. If any player in the PL is objectively elegant, stylish and exciting with the ball then it’s Senor Mata. Since Gianfranco Zola left Chelsea (10 years ago next month) the club hardly even came close to finding a player with the genius or the charm the Italian possessed. That was until last summer at least. Mata plays with all of the apparent effortlessness Zola demonstrated. As he expresses the joy of his art with magical feet for Chelsea every week, any fan who says they aren’t impressed or entertained is simply either stupid, or a liar.
This is the full list of nominees for the PFA Award this year: Robin Van Persie, Luis Suarez, Gareth Bale, Juan Mata, Michael Carrick and Eden Hazard.
Chelsea’s lack of success will most likely unfairly count against Mata in the end. Van Persie and Suarez will no doubt be the favourites, despite the former having ended the season extremely poorly by his own standards and the latter having scored 14 of his 22 goals against only 3 clubs!
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. The award doesn’t have any particular prestige value – the records also show a pretty strong English and Manchester Utd bias and Mata doesn’t need to win any popularity contests for the Chelsea fans and the more erudite followers of other clubs to appreciate what a precious asset he is for this division.
Didier Drogba won a fans’ poll last year and was voted the greatest Chelsea player of all time. I think it’s more than likely however his recent spectacular departure from the club might have skewed opinion somewhat. In my opinion no single player of the Abramovich era has done as much to influence the legacy of the club in a positive way as Zola managed to do – even if better players (attribute for attribute) have come and gone since. For the first time I think the Italian’s legacy as the most important and talismanic player to have worn a Chelsea shirt is under genuine threat after what Juan Mata has achieved this year.