I’ve run out of puns for Mata’s name, okay?

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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!

The Rafalution Will Be Televised

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Two weeks removed from the controversial signing of Benitez, the anti-Rafa chanting and baying still continues from Chelsea supporters. ‘One Di Matteo’ still rang out at the 16th minute in today’s match against Sunderland, and after Chelsea went up 3-0, the travelling fans reassured Rafa that it didn’t matter what he did. They do not want him.

Like any good despot, enlightened or not, Roman will not back down from his decision. Rafa ain’t goin’ nowhere. There are rumors that a group of supporters met with Abramovich to discuss their disappointment with the hiring of Rafa Benitez. As lovely as this gesture was, it was really just lip service to a manic public that wanted answers. After the firing of Di Matteo, interviews of Chelsea players and people close to Chelsea’s management kept creeping in nuggets about how shy Roman was and how great he was to work with. He has an image to reconstruct, and in this modern society, keeping that image maintained is as important as the work you do. Also, as a semi-autonomous sovereign, Roman, the benevolent dictator, needs to ensure that his axe falls hard on the necks of those that fail him and his people. He really is gentle until it comes to the well-being of his estate.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve struggled with this Rafa situation. I’ve wanted to just give up on Chelsea and this league. Everything was spinning and changing. Constantly, I asked myself, “Can anything or anyone be trusted?” It’s a dumb question to ask, since it’s just a sport. It’s not that important! Yet, I asked it, and many Chelsea fans asked themselves the same question.

Change is nothing new to Chelsea fans, and it’s become part of supporting that club. The changes, however drastic they have been, seemed to always ride the wave of discontent among the club’s support. Meaning, things got bad, Chelsea fans turned on the manager (almost NEVER the players, mind), and Roman would fire them. It was almost like professional wrestling when the evil, awful guy that would ruin everything would get beaten down by everyone’s favorite character. Order restored!

With every extinguishing of a manager’s flame, Chelsea’s list of possible top drawer managers shrunk, but the Chelsea supporters felt they had a man that would be by their side regardless of who would or would not come. Together in tandem, the two, public and owner, would rule English football and Europe. This whole “We want our club back!” backlash comes down to the destruction of an illusion of shared power. The maintenance of this illusion if how many dictatorships can guarantee impunity for whatever they do.

Over his first five games, the new company man has given supporters a sampler of the highs and lows of life under Benitez. The draws against Manchester City and Fulham felt avoidable. Benitez came in criticizing the players’ fitness, and perhaps because of the inability to finish matches, Benitez refused to let the Chelsea attack loose. They were instructed to defend first and make sure to not let the game get out of control. Then, the loss against West Ham happened.

Chelsea folded under the weight of a determined West Ham team in the second half of last weekend’s game. It was an embarrassing loss for a team whose payroll could pay for West Ham’s wage bill about 5 times over. Granted, it was against a decent West Ham team, away, and against the utilitarian and, if nothing else, effective Allardyce. Chelsea fans lost their goddamn minds.

People were giving up their tickets to upcoming games. They were refusing to go to any more matches. There have been calls to get behind the team, but nothing seems to be able to quench the bloodthirsty Chelsea fans.

Certainly out of necessity, Benitez has let loose the Chelsea team. Against Nordsjaelland, Chelsea opened up, got scored on once, but put up 6 against the weakest defensive team in all of the UEFA Champions League. Of course, there was nothing really to celebrate, as Juve’s win in the Ukraine secured Chelsea’s exit. However, Rafa encouraged Chelsea to play higher up the pitch. As the play moved up, chances were created, and Chelsea ran away with the match. Torres even scored! TWICE! We saw much of the same against Sunderland this morning. Pushing up left Chelsea vulnerable to a committed Sunderland team, but adjustments and defensive-minded substitutions by Rafa made sure Chelsea got their first win in the Prem since mid-October.

What we’ve seen so far is a manager that can make the right in-game decisions to secure points or a result that we’d like. As much shit as I may get for this, RDM wasn’t able to do that. Rafa’s rotated the squad a bit because of either necessity or suspension, and he will continue to do so. The return of Lampard to the side will do a lot of the strength and leadership on the field. Terry’s automatically back in the side once he’s fit. Looking to the future, under Benitez, Chelsea may be able to turn things around. They may get fitter. They may start clicking defensively and in attack. All is not dark in Chelsea land, it’s just sometimes, you don’t always get what you want when you live in a dictatorship.

This was never a democracy.

I know many won’t, but maybe it’s time to bite your lip, get behind the team, and watch what happens instead of jumping to early conclusions about the ability of a decent manager that said some negative things about a club he wasn’t managing — this being possibly the biggest charge against Rafa by Chelsea fans.

Steve McManaman said something interesting on ESPN’s coverage of today’s Chelsea match against Sunderland. He said something to the effect of talking negatively about other clubs is something a manager is SUPPOSED to do when he’s managing a side. He has to back his team. At the time, as Liverpool’s manager, he did just that. Just hearing that from someone took the edge off a little bit.

I’ve been guilty of calling for his job — getting swept up by the fury in the Chelsea camp. Ultimately, we are better than this. Give the guy a shot. If anything, he’s gone by the end of the season, and Chelsea are one step closer to getting either Pep or Mourinho.

Onto Japan.

Send your threats to @tehdago on Twitter.

The Craziest Show On Earth

I suppose I’ve been hesitant to write over the past month or so about football because it’s just gotten so out of control all of a sudden. I feel like no matter what I do I can’t get my feet under me. Everything is moving and constantly shifting in the Premier League. It’s causing a sort of fan’s fatigue. The sad part is the players seem to be all the same, and it’s all a bunch of mistakes repeated.

Mark Hughes is a mistake that keeps being repeated for sure. Honestly, Fulham dodged a bullet when he left for QPR. A year and a half later, and Hughes is out of a job for the same reason he was forced out of City. He completely mismanaged his squad and the buys that were supposed to get his team to their goal. As true as the sun rises in the east, Harry Redknapp is there to pick up the pieces like he did with Southampton and Tottenham. Maybe he’ll leave this team in tatters like he did Portsmouth, but who knows. There are plenty more examples, but let’s move onto the worst offender.

There’s Chelsea who, since the last time I wrote, have managed to pack about 16 terrible things in the span of a month — the Clattenburg accusation, Terry’s knee injury which resulted in a huge drop in form, losing to WBA, losing to  Juve, Roman firing RDM and hiring Benitez. I cannot keep up with the clusterfuck that is my own team.

I can speak at length about each of these topics, but so many have over the past month, that I’ll save myself the trouble. Most people have their minds made up where they sit in regards to Chelsea. They’re either the worst thing ever or a wonderful example of what corporate structure and dictatorial can achieve for a club that 10 years ago was on the verge of collapse. So, it never really matters what someone says about Chelsea. It’s just never going change. Somehow, Chelsea manage to deepen the divide between the two camps. The canyon between the two widens with each cock up on and off the field. They do have their saving graces — Mata, Oscar, Hazard, Ramires, David Luiz, and other likeables. Yet, it’ll never be enough as long as Chelsea continue to make it so easy for others to pile up on them.

Mistake after mistake plagues Chelsea’s squad and management in pretty much every aspect of their lives. If it’s not infidelity, it’s calling someone a black so-and-so. We let players like Ashley Cole shoot interns with an airsoft gun. We let transvestites that look like John Terry get photographed. We get rid of a club LEGEND who has served the club as both player and manager for one of the most hated figures in recent Chelsea memory. Enough is enough.

Sometimes, I think it’s too much to ask for a successful club and dignity. The way the Premier League has taken shape over the past 5 years, it seems almost impossible. Perhaps it’s England or just the way money, power, and the unattainable can corrupt people, but it just seems like this will never end. I sound pathetic to myself just writing this, but can the season just be over?

Too soon.

Bob Bamber of Own Goal Podcast asked the other day what our Premier League team of the season so far is. We’re only 6 games in, but I think this would be a great way to talk about how the Prem is shaping up and the impressive individual performances this season. Also, it’ll be a good way to redeem myself for the outrageous team I suggested to Bob on Twitter. I tried to fit just about every center mid in the league in my initial team. What can I say. I likes what I likes. Let’s go with a wide 4-2-3-1, aye? It’s what I play in Football Manager.

Goalkeeper

Petr Cech, Chelsea 

Call me a homer if you want, but I’m going to go with the guy with the most clean sheets at the best defensive record. Cech has been one of the top 10 keepers in the world for years. Last season, he got Chelsea out of some tight jams. This year he is doing much of the same with his intelligence, stature, leadership, and ability. Lovely to see a player with so many years left to give play so well. Some may consider Cech’s game a bit debilitated by his massive head injury, especially in set pieces. I believe it’s made him a smarter player, and the hat’s really cute.

Defenders

Ashley Cole, Chelsea

Another homer pick. Within the last month or so, Cole himself has claimed that Real Madrid’s Marcelo is the world’s best left back.  This week Carlo Ancelotti said Ashley was the best left back in the world. I don’t know where all this talk about left backs started. As Jürgen Klinsmann assured the American media, ANYONE CAN  PLAY LEFT BACK. Anyway, an up and down summer that began in May with the Champions League Final and included that missed penalty against Italy hasn’t affected Cole’s form for his club. At 32 years old, Ashley still works as hard for the team as anyone else on the field. His energy and his ability to defend and attack has been critical to a Chelsea team whose left side has for years lacked in consistent quality in attack. Currently, Ashley is in negotiations with Chelsea about the length of his contract. I believe Chelsea would be wise to keep him around as long as possible. His heir apparent, Ryan Bertrand, is ready, but Cole’s experience and ability would be something Chelsea would be foolish to let go. Plus, Ashley does a great job of riling up Arsenal fans — namely, massive fuckwit Piers Morgan. Honestly, I think blokes like Cole and Terry are fueled by boos and abuse. Weird to me. I would just cry.

Jonas Olsson, West Bromwich Albion

This might be an odd pick for some people. West Brom has been pretty tight defensively, and I like to attribute that to the leadership and ability Olsson displays. Every time I watch West Brom play, I’m impressed by their organization at the back. I think Clarke is doing a great job, and Olsson is the perfect player to execute his vision for WBA. One of the few internationals on WBA’s squad, Olsson is great at ushering his backline, communicating, and defending on set pieces. Also, he looks fucking terrifying, which is always a plus for a defender.

Jan Vertonghen, Tottenham Hotspur

If his form continues, he might become one of the best signings of the season. With William Gallas at the back help team him the ropes and rein him in a bit, Vertonghen has quickly become an impact player on Tottenham’s squad. His early goal in the match against Manchester United was critical to their victory at Old Trafford. His forays forward open up play. While that may leave Tottenham a bit exposed defensively. The potential is there to balance him out and make him a solid Premier League center back. (On first impression reminds me a bit of David Luiz’s first few months in England, at least in terms of impact, they are definitely not the same player, as Jan is a better defender.)

Pablo Zabaleta, Manchester City

Part of being the champ is that everyone is gunning for you. Teams throwing everything at you is part of the territory. At Chelsea, everyone wants to beat the European Champions. At City, everyone wants to take out England’s champion. Through this and last season, I believe Pablo has been one of Manchester City’s unsung heros. Keep in mind that this is the guy that is keeping Micah Richards out of the starting 11. He is effective both ways, strong, and intelligent. City’s defense hasn’t been as air-tight this season. I am confident City will find its defensive legs soon enough. Zabaleta will be a crucial part of City’s title defense this year as teams keep throwing everything they can at Manchester City. My biggest problem with Zabaleta is his male pattern baldness. It makes me think he’s much older than he is, and I keep underestimating him because I think he probably has to do dialysis daily or has done a shit ton of crosswords instead of train.

Midfielders

Ramires, Chelsea

Imagine a world where Ramires wasn’t made to play right wing the first few games of the season. Okay. Chelsea would have one hand on the title by now. Ramires’ recent (only in the last 2 matches) return to center midfield has allowed Mikel to play his game. It has made Chelsea stronger and has allowed for an attacking 4 of Mata, Hazard, Oscar, and Torres to gel over the past three matches or so across all competitions. His workrate is second-to-none. Of course his passing needs more work, but his movement both defensively and in attack is intelligent. It is obvious that he has put forth the effort while at Chelsea to improve his game. His role in the win over Arsenal at the Emirates was massive, and I expect more from him this season. Now, what to do about those braces.

Joe Allen, Liverpool 

On Being: Liverpool last week, Brendan Rodgers stated that Joe Allen might be 5’ 8”, but in terms of footballing ability, he’s probably the size of the 50-Foot Woman, at least. I agree. Joe Allen is rarely out of position. His passing has only gotten more precise and assertive since I first saw him play for Swansea in the Championship a couple of seasons ago. I’ve been a huge Allen fan, and I’m glad that he is quickly becoming a star on a Liverpool team that is looking for quality and consistency. Not only does he bring poise to the Liverpool squad, he brings an uncanny likeness to Phineas from Phineas and Ferb. That’s something we can all appreciate.

Steven Pienaar, Everton

If you’ve watched Everton play, it may be hard for you to think of a squad with a better left side than Everton. Leighton Baines and Stevie P. cut through teams easily down their flank. A lot of it has to do with the communication between the two and Pienaar’s all around control, incisiveness, and attacking nous. The guy can flat out play, and it’s wonderful to see him back at Everton after a barren and fruitless time at Tottenham.

Eden Hazard, Chelsea

In a gadda da vida, babyyyyy. Don’t you know I’ll always be fouled.

[15 minute organ solo]

He’s been such an impact player for Chelsea, it’s amazing he cost the club £15m less than Fernando ‘Can’t Say No to Suck’ Torres. His ball control is phenomenal. His vision is wonderful, and he is building a footballing rapport with Mata and Oscar, which will make him even more dangerous. Expect great things from Hazard this season and the future. Oh, and thank Christ someone got him to shave off that string of hair framing his face. His facial hair has improved since he started at Chelsea. All good things. 

Raheem Sterling, Liverpool

I’m reluctant to jump on the Sterling bandwagon because with any young Englishman, I feel the pressure of fame and expectation will stunt his development as a player. He needs to be humble and motivated. Sometimes, it’s a good thing to fly under the radar. Rodgers has obviously put his faith in the 17 year-old. He is quick on and off the ball. He makes the occasional poor decision, but who doesn’t? His potential is great, but I’m afraid of the youngster burning out. Also, I try to stay out of the personal lives of footballers as much as possible. Most of the time, I think the media is really inappropriate in how they pry into the lives of footballers in England. I don’t know how true the recent stories are of him being the father of up to 3 children, but I don’t take that as a good sign. You can’t concentrate on football if your life turns into some English, screwed up version of Bébé’s Kids. True or not, if he can focus on football and improving, I think Liverpool have found a wonderful opportunity in Sterling. Good, true wingers in the vein of Antonio Valencia, who is so critical to the success of Manchester United, in my opinion, are hard to find these days.

Striker:

Demba Ba, Newcastle 

I’m just going to leave this here.

And, that’s just normal to him. 

Honorable Mention: Cazorla (Arsenal), Fellaini (Everton), Baines (Everton), Routledge (Swansea), Michu (Swansea), Lambert (Southampton), Mata (Chelsea), Bale (Tottenham), Dembele (Tottenham), Suarez (Liverpool), Johnson (Liverpool), Valencia (Manchester United), Toure (Manchester City), Steven Fletcher (Sunderland), 

TL;DR Chelsea are the best team in the league right now. They have the most players on my team. You’re lucky there aren’t more, and I tried to be impartial. 

My team: Cech (Chelsea), Cole (Chelsea), Olsson (WBA), Vertonghen (Tottenham), Zabaleta (Manchester City), Ramires (Chelsea), Allen (Liverpool), Pienaar (Everton), Hazard (Chelsea), Sterling (Liverpool), Ba (Newcastle)

-dago