Juan Mata - The Great Paradox


Juan Mata was Chelsea's best attacking player last season, tallying 20 goals and an incredible 35 assists. However, he's proven to be a player that is only at his best when a team is built around him, something that new Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has been unwilling to do. Mata has been ineffective in his appearances for the Blues this season and has not scored a goal in the Premier League.

Manchester United reportedly paid a £37m fee to bring Mata to Old Trafford, which is a club record. They've run with a rotation of Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj in the central attacking midfield spot, with all of those players getting starts in other positions as well. It seems unlikely that United would break their transfer record to buy a player they won't play in his preferred position, so David Moyes now faces the difficult task of figuring out exactly how to construct a team around his new star.

There are two interesting, contradictory ways of framing Chelsea selling Mata to United. From one point of view, the Blues have sent their two-time Player of the Year to a direct title rival. And from another, United have just broken their transfer record to bring in a Chelsea bench player. Both are, of course, entirely true, which makes this almost paradoxical transfer extremely difficult to untangle. And that's because Mata is a very difficult player to untangle.

The raw numbers don't lie. As Chelsea's number ten, Mata has been one of the best footballers on the planet. We live in a world where most elite playmakers opt for caution and ball possession above most else, waiting for the other team to make a mistake, but Mata is cut from entirely different cloth. Like a Mesut Ozil or a David Silva, he plays with grace and sensuous skill; unlike them he has the almost irrepressible instinct to attack. Mata combines continental style with a ruthless killer edge. That's why he's a better goalscorer than any other 'true' number ten in the world. Where Ozil patiently probes, Mata forces the issue, and if he sees the opportunity to finish the move, whether with a shot or an audacious pass, he's willing to try it, risk or no.

Because the truth of Mata is that using him at his most effective, allowing him to run the game the way instinct tells him the game should be run, the rest of the team is shackled to his weaknesses. Much has been made of his lack of defensive acumen, inability to apply an aggressive press and the need to give him a free role behind the centre forward, but that's only part of what makes the 25-year-old so difficult to accommodate outside of a team built around him.

Mata's directness, his insistence on always driving at goal, means that his style of play is all risk for maximum reward. He tries things that nobody else would, and as a result he fails more, losing the ball far more often than you'd expect from a technically elite Spain international. Combine his attacking style with his lack of defensive ability and it soon becomes obvious that to control space and avoid the counterattack with Mata as your conductor, you need a very specific strategy - four defenders, two disciplined, defensively positioned midfielders and wingers that collapse into the second bank of four whenever you lose the ball.

Rafa Benitez is the only Chelsea manager who's ever found a way to completely unleash Mata in a way that doesn't compromise the rest of the team's defensive shape (which is where Roberto di Matteo went wrong when he deviated from his ultra-defensive approach after winning the Champions League). But there were compromises made elsewhere. Mata was unchained but his teammates were not. The midfielders had fewer opportunities to go forward and both Eden Hazard and Oscar were forced into more constrained roles, the latter being hit particularly hard.

And this is the great Mata paradox - to get the most out of him you have to watch as your entire team is subsumed by his gentle tyranny. He'll reward you, and has rewarded Chelsea in spades, but it comes at a cost. The small tweaks you make to get Mata to play at his best in the hole all come at the expense of the rest of the team, and there's a limit to how far even the best number ten in the game can take you on his own.

Source: UK Telegraph, Associate Press, Guardian, Fox Sports News

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