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 International Break: Clubs, Money, Dictatorships, and Just About Everything You Can Throw Into a Post

As nations compete against one another for the honor of taking a month-long vacation in Brasil come Summer 2014, fans of the other nations in football are given a moment to break from the baying and whining that comes with supporting a football club. There have been a lot of mishaps by clubs in the transfer window — all amplified by the panicky furor of deadline day. Soccer news outlets seem to have taken pleasure in haunting disaffected fans through their dissections of the successes and failures of deadline day and the transfer window. Arsenal and Liverpool were lambasted for their inactivity. Chelsea and Tottenham spent millions of pounds on players during the window. QPR created some sort of weirdo Frankenstein team over the past few months. 

Half-hearted reasoning and criticism has spewed out from everyone from players to managers to celebrities to newspeople. It’s almost too much. However, as much conjecture the media pumps out about transfer policies or internal schisms, these pseudo-nations, autonomous entities operate rather clandestinely. Tight-lipped, clubs obscure our ability to examine their inner-workings. American sports are phenomenally transparent in comparison to European and international sport. This is something I have come to learn and hate about international soccer. Clubs are managed by men (mostly men) and women that have the cultural and economic power to do as they please with the clubs and organizations they are entrusted with or have purchased with their oil/dirty money. It would probably be easier to topple a government than pry a football club from the hands of a terrible, dictatorial, or unbelievably incompetent owner.

 

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            I had a professor in my early university years that taught Europe in the 20th Century and Russian History. She wasn’t always a professor. During WWII, she spent time in the Army doing her part as much as she was allowed in the 1940s on the ground here in the States. By the time Vietnam rolled around, she had raised a few kids and almost had them out of the house. Her commitment to her country led her to volunteering to join military intelligence as an interpreter. She became fluent in Russian and French. Pretty useful during the Cold War. She later on went to earn her Ph.D. in Russian History. By the time I had enrolled in her class, she was in her late-70s, but still sharp as a tack. She was my kind of dame.

Between 2004 – 2006, I took a few courses of hers and fell in love with Russian History and Modern European History. At the same time, The United States was embroiled in two wars in far off lands. One was about 9/11 in Afghanistan. The other over some unfinished business we kind of started in Iraq. Every couple of weeks or so, Louise would take some time from her lesson to explain the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. This became really important when she explained Russian intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s. She almost always ended with an explanation of how democracy can never work inorganically imposed on a culture that never knew that kind of cooperation. It didn’t come from a jingoistic, Islamophobic place. It came from an understanding of History that was peppered with examples of the imposition of ideology on a people who were not receptive or ready, depending on how your ideology informs you. Imposing restrictions or freedom on people who were not ready, who did not know the responsibility, or just plain didn’t care for it was not a good idea. This is how Louise went about explaining why the transition from an Imperial, monarchist Russia to the USSR was not so incredibly revolutionary. Sure, the ideas and motivations were different, but structurally, it was much of the same. There was a single figure that controlled everything, either by design or holy mandate; it was control from the center. Decisions would be made and there would be no deliberation. Wrong or right, the responsibility was that of the great leader to guide the masses.

 

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As this week passed, fans of Liverpool, Milan, Arsenal, and many others bemoaned their lack of signings. What were they expected to do now? Get behind their teams? As exchanges between fans began, a rueful, resentful tone arose from those felt hard done by. They resented the money and influence of the Chelseas and Manchester Citys of the world. These clubs exhibit strong leadership with drive and determination. Maybe some lack the vision. For example, Liverpool loaned out Andy Carroll without giving Rodgers and the administration enough time to get a decent replacement. The one person they did go after, Liverpool failed to meet the asking price by a couple of million pounds, after having paid £35m for Andy to begin with. He’s an expensive mistake. Leadership did not and has not worked together well enough in Liverpool for several years – under Henry or not. Liverpool fans bombarded John Henry with abuse and criticism. Keyboard warrior stuff. They forget Henry has helped get Liverpool out of the mess they were in to begin with. This impatience is exacerbated by the existence of these “sugar daddy clubs.”

Sugar daddy clubs have the ability to just buy a player at will and not have to answer to anyone. Supporters and the interested aren’t even within earshot of these guys. There are no pesky boards or even managers to say no. 

“I want Sheva. I buy Sheva. You work with him now.”

Times are changing, though. This week I read a couple of really great articles about Financial Fair Play, UEFA’s impending rules on how clubs operate financially which will potentially have competitive and financial consequences for clubs that operate in the red without a viable plan of getting out of their financial holes. Rules can become incredibly complicated. Both Gabriele Marcotti and the fellas at Swiss Ramble did an amazing job explaining the rules to simple people like me. What truly struck me was the ease a club could possibly get out of punitive payments or missing out on European competition with the write lawyers or financial experts. UEFA has not imposed a disciplinary system. Instead it’s a set of possibilities and their word that they’ll use their discretion when handing out punishments.

So, sleep well, Chelsea fans. All of the jeering about how the rules are changing and how our plastic club can’t survive is unfounded. Listen, if Chelsea got out of serving a full 18 months without the possibility of signing any new players for the Kakuta fiasco just by batting its eyelids, you shouldn’t worry. Clubs will pretty much be able to operate as they have. This new system will only act as a new way to validate the tyrannical, dictatorial, and wasteful spending of clubs. Some clubs may act irresponsibly with no accountability, but as long as they keep UEFA off their tails, everything is fine. There will be no plagues or droughts like those that affected early kings and princes as long as UEFA are as malleable as they intend to be. UEFA will act as another mechanism to maintaining the natural order that fans and owners love so much but to their own detriment. 

Historically, pseudo-accountability, validation from on high has served autocrats, totalitarians, dictators, kinds, and strongmen well. The game of fabricating a mandate or external force pushing the hand of the government plays well into the obscured lives of owners and chairmen.  Now owners can play the part of either in opposition or cooperating with a variable that is out of their control when it really is not. The external can bring everyone together, hold together hierarchy, and keep the peace. This is if they’re smart.

UEFA’s discretion will change from here to there, and it is unpredictable. A friend of big money clubs now, it can all go wrong very quickly. UEFA can become foe or ally quickly, and it is important for fans to understand this and push for more responsible spending the best way they can. A whim could doom a club much like the Goodell Era of the NFL here in the United States.

So what?

Chelsea had its Sputnik moment last season. The top-down thing works rarely, and the club’s future is invested in a man with a short temper and a long life ahead that may lead him out of football. Chelsea opening its continental account was an amazing story and a great achievement for everyone who supports Chelsea, but it’s not the end nor is it close. The arms race with City, United, Real, Barcelona, and PSG will continue. What clubs and fans will have to realize is global economic systems will eventually catch up with the overspent, overexerted, and overbearing clubs, much like they caught up with the Soviet Union and Communist China in the late-1980s. Sure, economies have collapsed and football has remained okay, but for how long? It’s already affecting Italy and Spain’s leagues. China got itself out of the muck, but Russia sure hasn’t. Both nations were so caught up in the need for central, strong authority after their near/total collapses, that they refused to truly change the order of things. Putin is still in power, and the People’s Republic is still run by a handful of party members.

Central authority allows people to throw their hands in the air and absolve themselves of responsibility. It also reinforces the simplistic natural order of things. No matter how much people complain about the processes in football or the money, given the opportunity, many wouldn’t take it upon themselves to help manage their clubs in whatever system available. However, this doesn’t really tell us much. Many of us like standing outside of the limelight, and we wouldn’t like people constantly speculating about our money and our private lives. It takes a madman to run a club. It takes a madman to rule a nation. No matter how mad football becomes, we’re complicit in its practices. It feeds off of us, and we feed off of it. We’re overtaken by the revolutionary fever that has claimed so many through the course of history. We’re victims and collaborators all the same.