Juan Mata is an exceptionally talented footballer. Anybody can tell you that – 56 assists and 41 goals in 3 seasons certainly does. So why has José Mourinho, arguably the best manager in the world, sold Mata to maybe-next-season-tital-rivals Manchester United? How can a world class player be held in such low regard by a world class manager?
The modern game is one that stresses the importance of defending from the front, one that places great emphasis of being able to defend effectively no matter what position a player plays in, and one that exposes a lack of defensive work rate. José Mourinho’s Chelsea have been introduced to a proactive system that is gradually improving. Chelsea are becoming a team of well-rounded players who contribute to every phase of play. Mata, although previously impeccable when his side are in possession of the ball, lacks the defensive work rate that Mourinho’s system requires. Mourinho clearly prefers Oscar as a #10 in the 4-2-3-1 that Chelsea play with, and this is because Oscar works equally as hard off the ball as on it. This article by @SeBlueLion analyses the difference in styles of play implemented at Chelsea by Vilas Boas, Di Matteo, Benitez and Mourinho, showing why Mata simply won’t do for Chelsea’s current system. To understand what Mourinho’s system requires, this analysis, again by @SeBlueLion, must be read as it explains how Chelsea press collectively.
In possession – Mourinho’s adaptations accomodated Mata
“Not a genuine playmaker due to his propensity to play penetrative passes into his attackers’ path, unbalancing defenses through one pass (reason why the more conservative Silva is preferred to him in Spain’s defensive possession game), the Special Juan is regularly uneasy when tightly closed down – and regularly gives the ball away to the benefit of the illustrious strangers of the game. This then puts further enhance on his propensity to exploit “pockets of space” in order to escape from his direct opponent. But those sideways or backwards first touches towards the open spaces allow the opponent to get back in position” – @SeBlueLion on Mata’s unique playing style.
In short, the above quote translates to: ‘Mata’s weakness is that he is uneasy when tightly closed down and, due to him always looking to exploit space, he takes extra touches when under pressure to move into space, which allows the opposition to get back in position’. The Spaniard’s weakness is also his strength, though. Mata possesses an immense ability to exploit space by firstly being able to ‘read the game’ extraordinarily, and secondly by timing runs and movements to perfection. Such timing is likely a consequence of avoiding his physical limitations, converting a weakness into a strength, which demonstrates his well-documented intelligence.
Mata, then, prefers to stay high in initial build up as it is the best way he can exploit space. This conflicts with Mourinho’s implementation of a rotating midfield four in early build up. Here is one example of the rotation: The #10 (usually Oscar), when one of the deep lying midfielders has possession of the ball, is to move deeper into a half space, whilst the other ‘deep lying midfielder’ moves into the opposite half space. The right-sided attacking midfielder comes central and takes the position that the #10 has left.
Mourinho, being the great manager he is, implemented this rotational midfield knowing fully well that Mata would be less effective in the #10 role, so as a result has played him in the right-sided attacking midfield position [as displayed in the above diagram]. This allows Mata to come into the #10’s space often in build up, but also means that Mata cannot permanently play there because of his unwillingness to drop deep in early build up. Chelsea’s asymmetrical organisation in attack, to allow Hazard to make more runs in behind means that Mata has a variety of options when the rotation results in him moving into the #10 position.
However, this isn’t the only rotation that occurs, which means that the player in the right-sided attacking midfield role can often end up deep in build up, which doesn’t fit Mata’s playing style. Mourinho has played Mata in this role when both he and Oscar have started to ensure that Mata does not encounter as many situations where he comes deep for the ball.
Against Schalke, Mourinho made a tactical adjustment, which again would not suit Mata. The striker (Eto’o) made runs into wide channels and was replaced by the #10 who, as a consequence, was a lot higher in the build up due to having no rotation with deeper midfielders. Albeit, Oscar played in the #10 role in this game due to his ability to shield the ball better than Mata.
The idea was for the striker (Eto’o) to take away a centre back so that the #10 could receive the ball to quickly play a ball in behind the defence into the striker, or to shield the ball before passing to either Willian or Schurrle. This would have meant that the #10 would often receive the ball in situations where he is closed down tightly, which is one of Mata’s limitations due to his lack of physical strength and tendency to exploit space positionally.
This adjustment, though, was not a permanent one because it moves away from Mourinho’s ideal view of an eventual full implementation of a rotational midfield (only used at home so far), but it does give Chelsea a ‘plan B’.
Out of possession
Football’s phases of play all interlink, and this is why Oscar has been preferred in the #10 role over Mata this season. The Spaniard has shown a lack of defensive understanding, ability and work rate.
Mourinho is trying to turn Chelsea into a proactive team who press high up, which requires a collective attitude off the ball. Mata is very much individualistic when not on the ball – he lacks the attitude needed to fit Chelsea’s new style of play, which is likely to be a result of previous managers’ systems not requiring him to have a high defensive work rate, and that he is also naturally less inclined to work hard off the ball.
Mourinho requires the #10 to joing the striker when pressing the opposition defence when in early stages of build up, but also requires him to work back and help press from behind when the opposition have played through the first wave of pressure. This requires a player who can sustain periods of high intensity throughout a match – Mata is not a 90 minute player in a proactive system, he is often seen ‘drifting out of the game’.
Oscar is seemingly always on the move, energetic in each phase of play. This, to an extent, can be taught, but natural tendencies will always take precedence – Oscar’s development means he is inclined to work hard in each phase, Mata’s means he is not.
The difference in defensive contribution is evident:
- Oscar has successfully completed 42 tackles in 1342 minutes. This equates to a successful tackle every 32 minutes.
- Mata has successfully completed 12 tackles in 826 minutes. This equates to a succesful tackle every 69 minutes.
- Oscar has successfully completed 42/69 tackles, which is a 61% success rate.
- Mata has successfully completed 12/28 tackles, which is a 43% success rate.
Oscar, then, is clearly the more desirable choice for the desired proactive system. Such stats show that Oscar displays better defensive abilities and physical strength than Mata, which could highlight issues with Mata’s body shape and pressing angle when engaging an opponent.
A visible frailty of Mata’s, though, is his defensive understanding. This short analysis from @SeBlueLion shows Mata’s inability to understand who he is meant to be tracking zonally.
Chelsea’s loss, United’s gain?
Mourinho and Chelsea, in my opinion, have not lost out on the £37.1 million deal. Mourinho faced a dilemma: be persistent but patient and help develop Mata both in and out of possession, whilst also taking into consideration his natural tendencies, which are very hard to change, or take £37.1 million and use this for other players who can be developed significantly to suit the desired system of play. He took the second option, and this will probably benefit Chelsea more in the long-term.
Despite this, I certainly don’t think United have lost out on the deal. This article has simply shown Mata’s limitations and doesn’t need to analyse his strengths as in-depth because they are a lot less subtle. Moyes’ men have gained a superstar and, although I don’t think he will have the Özil effect, he will undoubtedly improve United’s attack.
David Moyes will almost certainly have to change United’s system of play to accomodate Mata, Januzaj, Rooney and Van Persie to get the best out of them. A more advanced system will be needed to expose their strengths and hide their weaknesses. They will be defensively worse off if all of these players are to start because the defence and two deeper central midfielders could be very exposed in transition. Carrick and Fletcher are United’s best players at covering exposed wide areas but do suffer from a lack of mobility, whereas Fellaini is poor at covering and could further expose the team if fielded. The 4-4-2 will probably change to a 4-2-3-1.
This has led me to thinking that, although Mata is a fantastic addition to United’s attack, is the transfer a show of naivety from David Moyes? A pragmatist may suggest that a well-rounded deep central player should have been the priority, such as Gundogan, Vidal or even Ki, whose profile fits perfectly with United’s needs. If such a player is acquired in the coming days and Moyes changes United’s playing system in a positive way, the United boss may shake some unwanted pressure off his shoulders.
If that is not the case, and no transfer activity occurs, and a pragmatic change of system does not come about, Moyes’ failure at United could propel to levels that could spell the end of Moyes’ short tenure.