Photo from ESPN
Last year, I caught an article in The Blizzard about how the Roy of the Rovers cartoon series negatively affected English football because it fostered a football culture that depended too much on the solitary hero or the talisman. Sure, other nations put a premium on talent and great players, but victory is a much more collective pursuit. It’s a team sport after all. Recently, I’ve become afraid of a Chelsea squad living and dying according to Mata’s form, like City rely on Silva and Toure, or Manchester United have relied on Rooney, or Liverpool relied on Gerrard in the past and Suarez now. What’s important moving forward for Chelsea, and I hope Rafa sees this (he probably does), is that the moving parts around Mata continue to make those important runs and passes to unlock the uncanny ability that Mata possesses. He’s been a vibrant, brilliant part of an all together bummer of a season for Chelsea. So far this season for Chelsea, he’s made 29 appearances with a return of 13 goals and 15 assists. Pretty darn good, if you ask me.
I was a big fan of Mata when he was at Valencia [btw think of how sick that Valencia team was for a while], and I’m glad that he’s adjusted well to the Premiership over the past 18 months. He’s scoring and creating for others in a team that has struggled for years to find an identity outside of Didier Drogba — it always seemed like an attempt to distance the team away from him in order to make it easier to move him on or sell him. Drogba just kept coming back.
For a long while, the answer to Chelsea’s attacking problems consisted of lobbing the ball up to Drogba and letting the players around him benefit or get the hell out of the way. Through the years, managers implemented variations of Mourinho’s 4-3-3, which worked REALLY well when you had an in-form lone striker with the quality of Drogba become the focal point in the attack. Obviously, he also worked great in RDM’s 4-2-3-1 — another system that played to Drogba’s strengths. Torres in these variations, under Ancelotti and RDM, was never effective. At times he’s a passenger. In other instances, he’s been a liability in attack. Really, he’s just been “Roger” ala Sister Sister out there. He just needs to go home.
Anyway, with the change in shape and philosophy forced through the departure of Drogba, the team has come to rely on the strength of its attacking midfielders. Mata has come to be the most productive of the rotating three behind the lone striker that typifies Chelsea’s attack in 2012-2013. On his day, Mata is unplayable. He cuts teams open with his passing and movement. Complimented by the intelligent play of Eden Hazard, Victor Moses, and Oscar, Chelsea can swing with anyone if they’re playing motivated. Motivation has always seemed like a problem at Chelsea since Mourinho left, but we can talk about that another time.
The most important piece at Chelsea for the past few months has been Juan Mata. With Drogba gone, Mata has become the focal point of the attack. Of course, he’s a completely different player than Drogba. He does things like pass. I believe the most important thing about this development is that when Mata has the ball, as our playmaker, he has players in front of him moving and creating space. With the focal point moved back a few meters, the field opens up more for Juan, Eden, or Oscar. Distribution isn’t as much of a problem anymore. The focal point is just outside of the box and not IN it. Players have access to more options in attack. Mata has been able to find those options and work off them to either score or create for others. Of course, this system was implemented by RDM, but Rafa has put an impetus on regaining possession and incisive attacking movement that perhaps Robbie Di Matteo did not.
Lately, at times, Chelsea has been amazing to watch. However, they HAVE been awful as well.
What I’m most worried about with this team is Mata becoming too much of a focal point. Teams will be able to find him and mark him out of a game. I feel this is what’s happened to Manchester City. I attribute their lack of being able to put away “lesser” clubs in matches to teams being able to focus on the strengths of a few players which successfully derails the entire City team. That’s where that whole reliance on a talisman comes into play. They do not have enough quality alternatives to Silva or Yaya Toure. Mata, Hazard, Oscar, Moses, and Marin do switch positions on the field often during the course of a match, and it helps a lot, but against top teams, I don’t think it has been as effective. Against poorer, unbalanced teams, it works like a charm.
Chelsea’s 8-0 demolition job on Aston Villa showed us that Chelsea have goalscorers and creative types all over the field. If Mata picks up an injury or gets marked out of a game, Chelsea can survive. Survival doesn’t mean they wouldn’t suffer. I am afraid of a Mata-less Chelsea. Eden can play that position, but he hasn’t had the success of Mata. Oscar is still getting his sea legs. We all haven’t seen enough of Marko Marin, and Victor is an industrious, incredibly useful player, but he is not the type of passer nor does he possess the vision of the other four. Mata is crucial to a successful Chelsea.
I hope this turns out to be a banner season for Mata. I’m fearful that Juan’s masterful work in 2012-2013 will eventually turn out to be fruitless in terms of trophies. Chelsea are in 3rd and 11 points back (game in hand) from United at the moment, out of the Champions League, and lost in the UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup finals already. A few chances for silverware remain for Chelsea, and I, as a fan, want to be able to point out a trophy and proudly state that was the season everyone began to fear, respect, love(?) Juan Mata.
Here’s a shitty GIF!