Forget Terry, Mata is the main man at Chelsea these days
The determination to make a good first impression under a new manager always galvanises a group of players, and Chelsea’s squad have become well-accustomed to this concept in recent years – forced to adapt to the methods of André Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo and Rafael Benítez in quick succession.
Few have started each era as impressively as Juan Mata – he scored on his debut under Villas-Boas, then struck the first goal of the Di Matteo and Benítez eras. With the rotation at centre-back, the inconsistency of the central midfielders and the struggles upfront, Mata has been a key player under all three coaches, and has consistently delivered in the final third.
Mata belongs to an extraordinary generation of talented Spanish passing midfielders – for the European Championships in the summer, he was fighting with Sergio Busquets, Javi Martínez, Xabi Alonso, Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta, Santi Cazorla, David Silva and Cesc Fàbregas for a place in the centre of the pitch.
Yet few are capable of such efficiency around the penalty box. Mata doesn’t see the ball as frequently as Alonso or Xavi; he’s not quite as silky as Iniesta or Silva, but his rate of goals and assists, especially since joining the Premier League last summer, is truly extraordinary. He has played the final pass for a goalscoring team-mate 20 times, more than anyone else in the Premier League, since his arrival. Silva is his closest challenger, but Mata has also outscored him, 13 goals to seven. Isn’t the Premier League supposed to be difficult to adapt to?
Not for Mata, who is a glorious example of how to be the star without appearing spectacular. His movements are subtle, and the trajectory of his passes is simple – but he times everything perfectly, and his appreciation of space and angles is extremely intelligent. He moves quickly in possession but takes small steps, meaning you’re never quite sure when he’s going to play a through-ball, a mystery furthered by his ambidexterity; without watching him shaping up to take a set-piece, you’d never be completely sure he favours his left boot.
It’s gone completely unnoticed that Mata has been shunted around the pitch since his move to England – Villas-Boas liked him drifting inside from the left, Di Matteo was building a side with him starting on the right, and now Benítez appears to favour him as a classic No10, located behind Fernando Torres. Regardless of where he is deployed, Mata has been Chelsea’s key attacker since his arrival – Didier Drogba has departed, Torres has been out of form, Oscar’s still developing, while Eden Hazard has been exciting but inconsistent.
Yet his status at Chelsea hasn’t been fully recognised. Mata is, by a considerable distance, Chelsea’s best player. Who is close to him, in terms of ability and consistency? Torres, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Ashley Cole or Petr Cech? Not these days. Oscar or Hazard? Not yet. Ramires, Branislav Ivanovic and John Obi Mikel are trusty foot soldiers rather than outstanding footballers. Chelsea’s consistent recruitment of expensive attackers ensures they will never be a one-man team, but they would encounter significant difficulties if they were to lose Mata for an extended period.
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