Even after two remarkable (to the point of being seminal) seasons, chimerical rumours from Spain along with the observation Mourinho hadn’t mentioned his name yet when discussing his plans, it seemed that some members of the Chelsea fan base had convinced themselves the future of Juan Mata at the club was somehow not 100% guaranteed. And if you were one of these people – I bet you really feel silly now don’t you?
Yet another fascinating interview was supplied by the manager yesterday from pre-season training in London. He was finally asked about his plans for our #10 and had the following to say:
“It was my invention (The Player’s Player of the Year Award). The fans have one perspective, the players another, so for Mata to have won both means a lot. People love him, but his fellow players love the work he puts in for the team. Of course he fits into my plans. I have my idea about him, about where he produces better and where he has more difficulty. We will try to help him perform better in those situations. I’ve always liked a right-sided player to be left-footed. I started with Robben and Duff, then [Goran] Pandev at Inter, and Di María and Ozil. Many clubs do it. It’s more than a tendency.
“I like wingers coming in on the inside for the penetrative movement, for the pass, for the shot. And Juan is the only player we have to do that on the right. On the left we have Hazard, Victor Moses, Kevin De Bruyne, André Schürrle … Juan is also very comfortable playing as a No10. In between these two positions, he has a lot to give to the team.”
From this it seems pretty clear if not manifestly obvious that Mourinho plans to use Mata on the right side of midfield, which is of course where he started for Roberto di Matteo at the beginning of last season. I have three thoughts about this:
1 – Mata’s best position is through the middle (not on the right) – I don’t think that can be called into question. When RDM took over from AVB and moved Mata from the left to the centre, his form and impact improved massively; likewise when Rafa Benitez moved him from the right to the centre last year. Of course, the Spaniard can be and is a greater wide player but, if a move to the wing is made permanent, I think it’d be unreasonable to expect (goals and assists) stats even close to last seasons. His poor defending/tracking back will also be an issue, with that area of his game needing a lot of attention and work if that flank isn’t to be a glaring weakness next season.
2 – HOWEVER, Mata’s free role in the #10 position is quite a selfish one, even if it is, ironically, as a selfless provider. When Chelsea are struggling to control a game he’s usually quite difficult to spot on the pitch. And as Mourinho has said, that isn’t something to be tolerated of players as talented as Juan. Another thing to consider, although it may sound ridiculous, is that he is just “too good” in that #10 position. Last year he was such as consistent source of quality and composure (not to mention goals) that his absence from the side reduced it’s overall level so drastically, that beating even the smaller teams became worryingly difficult. I for one can’t imagine a Jose Mourinho side ever being as reliant on a player as we were on Juan Mata last season.
3 – Finally, you may have noticed that as Jose talks about having Mata on the right, as well so many options to play wide left; he omits any mention of one player in particular: Oscar. I should preface the following point of view by saying that Oscar is my favourite player in the Chelsea squad to both watch and write about and I’ve always wanted him to play the #10 role, if for nothing other than my own entertainment. I think there are however, good objective reasons why, if my inferences are correct about JM’s intentions, that this is very good news indeed.
Firstly and fore mostly, Oscar is an exceptional talent who deserves to play his best position in this team. There’s no doubt in my mind that given the opportunity, he’d never let the side down. But also, the role he has for Brazil, where he very much plays second fiddle to the wingers in terms of attacking freedom, could more than possibly work wonders in a Chelsea side with Juan Mata and Eden Hazard coming in off the flanks. The ease with which Oscar can manage both the position of a creative central hub and an extra central midfielder is also an asset that Mata wouldn’t be able to provide, in addition to providing cover for the more direct players in the squad, as he does so brilliantly for Brazil, even for the full backs at times.
Choosing one of Oscar and Mata to play the #10 role, I’m sure many coaches would argue would be a great problem to have – but it’s also an extremely difficult one. Whilst Mata is undoubtedly the more prolific and the more creatively gifted and efficient in that position, the overall restrictions his deployment in that role places on the team are extremely noticeable, and there are good reasons to think these restrictions wouldn’t exist if Oscar was used instead. I think (and also hope) that it’s a debate that will go on for a long time to come yet…