Juan Mata, it seems generally agreed, is not a Mourinho type of player. That is all but self-evident: why else, after all, would the player who was Chelsea’s player of the year in each of the last two seasons find himself so on the periphery? It’s true that he has made 11 Premier League starts this season, but he has been substituted in nine of those games and his disgruntlement at being taken off against Southampton on New Year’s Day was clear.
Exactly what constitutes being a Mourinho player is rather harder to define. When Mata came off after 53 minutes, at Southampton, along with André Schürrle, they were replaced by Oscar and Willian. The impact was immediate and a game that had been beetling along at 0-0 was transformed into a comfortable Chelsea win. Oscar and Willian looked bigger, stronger and faster than Mata and Schürrle. As such they fitted the profile, or at least the stereotype: Mourinho likes even his creators to buzz with purpose and muscle.
Yet what does that mean in real terms? Perhaps pace on the break and the ability to outmuscle opponents is vital, but it often seems to be assumed that the Mourinho demand Mata struggles to meet is a defensive one; that he is a neat technical player who struggles to fulfil his share of the work closing down opponents.
The statistics this season, certainly, suggest that to be true. In the attacking third this season, Oscar has regained possession on average 0.83 times per game, Eden Hazard 0.6, Willian 0.45, Schürrle 0.31, Mata 0.308 and Kevin De Bruyne, now seemingly destined for a loan spell at Wolfsburg, not at all. Oscar, in particular, is a model of diligence, making an average of 2.7 tackles per game. To put that in context, that’s the same number as Phil Bardsley and more than any other attacking player in the league. Or, to put in another way, the only player to have won the ball back more times in the final third this season is Adam Lallana, while Hazard’s season-total of 12 has him joint third.
So winning the ball back high up the pitch is essential to the Mourinho way of doing things, and this season Mata hasn’t been doing it. What’s strange, though, is that last season, Mata not only won the ball back in the final third regularly, but even did so more often than Oscar. Last season, Mata won the ball back in the final third on average 0.69 times per game, Oscar 0.53, Hazard 0.41 and Victor Moses 0.35. After all, it’s not as though Rafa Benitez’s game-plan is not based on disciplined pressing and winning the ball back high up the pitch. In fact last season, only Santi Cazorla (31) and Luis Suárez (29) won possession in the final third more often than Mata (24). The obvious question is why there should be such a fall-off, and there seems no obvious answer other, perhaps, than that Mata has found his confidence effected by his frequent omissions and as a result isn’t quite as committed as he had been previously.
Creatively, Mata is struggling too, yet to score in the league this season and with two assists, as opposed to 12 goals and 12 assists last season and 6 goals and 13 assists the season before. His key passes are down as well, from 3.0 per game in 2011-12 to 2.7 last season to 2.3 this. That’s still high: only Hazard of the present Chelsea squad has more (2.5), while third in the list is Frank Lampard with 1.3. Willian and Oscar both play 1.2 per game with André Schürrle on 1.1 and Kevin De Bruyne on 1.
That’s what makes Mata’s ostracism so odd: if he reproduced last season’s numbers, making tackles, playing key-passes and scoring goals, he would surely be a Mourinho player even if he doesn’t look like one. As it is, Mourinho’s doubts about him – and the superlative form of Hazard and Oscar – seem strangely to have made those doubts come true, almost as though, while acknowledging his lack of pace, he has become not a Mourinho player because Mourinho believes him not to be one.
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