Is Chelsea’s no.10 being held back by his country?
They say ‘hard work pays off’; the more you put in, the more you get out of your chosen discipline. If that’s the case, then since 2010 Spain’s Juan Mata should be that particular slogan’s poster boy.
Since playing a bit-part role in his country’s historic victory in South Africa, Mata has participated in full La Liga and Premier League (twice) campaigns – appearing well over 30 times in each – an entire European Championships and its Under-21 equivalent, and full FA Cup, Champions League and Europa League campaigns. Not to mention the World Club Cup, recent Confederations Cup and last summer’s Olympic Games.
Indeed, the most recent lap of his latest marathon-esque season begun prior to London’s sporting extravaganza last year, as he joined up with the squad fresh(ish) from Euro 2012 in Poland & Ukraine. Since then, Mata has traversed the globe in honour of club and country, stretching from Japan and Brazil, to Panama and Qatar, accumulating over 65 games for Chelsea alone.
But what did the little number 10 get out of it all?
How about winning the World Cup, the European Championships (and Under-21 equivalent), the Champions League, Europa League and FA Cup.
So, after his latest globetrotting pursuit of trophies, is he tired? “No, no, not at all.” Mata told The Guardian, near the end of the season. “Sure, it’s been a busy season, but I feel the desire to play more and more. I’m still fresh.
Maybe the yoga I do helps me to play as much as I do. It certainly gets you in the right frame of mind, stretches and relaxes you. But my game is improving, too. In terms of confidence, I’m still growing, but it’s easy to do that when you’re enjoying yourself.
Far from being a bit-part player in the domestic triumphs (unlike certain other Spaniards one cares not to mention), Mata has been a very active participant; a central figure in his team’s success. Despite the high mileage on the clock for a player not long past his 25th birthday, Mata remains constantly outstanding for Chelsea – and his stats back up that fact.
Last season, Mata scored 19 goals and directly created another 32 – that’s a 51 goal contribution for his club. To give that particular stat some context, only the Premier League’s top 8 clubs – of which Chelsea was one of – scored more goals than the former Valencia playmaker.
Many were left dumbfounded that he wasn’t spoken of more aggressively in terms of being a credible candidate for the league’s Player of the Year award, when Robin van Persie, Luis Suarez and eventual winner, Gareth Bale, were deemed the only ‘real’ options by those that decide.
His impact has been phenomenal for Chelsea, especially when considering both the external and internal obstacles in his path: external, due to a second season when the opposition are more aware of the threat he poses, and internal, when you consider the increased competition for his position, in the exceptional forms of Oscar and Eden Hazard.
That Mata outshone the new arrivals and was the central figure in Chelsea’s side speaks volumes – it was he who was deployed in his favoured position more often than not, whilst the expensive signings were generally employed in wider areas.
But is all that about to change with Jose Mourinho’s return? Does the ‘special one’ not deem the direct influence of Mata, all that special? Surely a player voted Chelsea’s Player of the Season, and in the process, drawing comparisons to another diminutive Number 10 – a player widely acknowledged as the club’s greatest ever, Gianfranco Zola – won’t be tinkered with?
The jury is out. Rumours persist that the Portuguese coach doesn’t quite see what all the fuss is about surrounding the mercurial Spaniard – particularly after dismissing the chance to sign him whilst in charge of Real Madird. A recent interview perhaps gave more of an insight into Mourinho’s future plans for Mata:
I have my idea about him, about where he produces better and where he has more difficulty.
We will try to help him perform better in those situations. I’ve always liked a right-sided player to be left-footed. I like wingers coming in on the inside for the penetrative movement, for the pass, for the shot. And Juan is the only player we have to do that on the right.
Juan is also very comfortable playing as a No10. In between these two positions, he has a lot to give to the team.
Amazingly, Mourinho will be Mata’s fourth coach since joining Chelsea just over two seasons ago. It is a sign of his quality that the previous men in charge all made him integral to the side. It’s also a sign of his incredible work ethic and intelligence that the player values his experiences with all three, and the different methods they brought:
It’s vital a player feels important in the team and, personally speaking, all the managers I’ve worked with here have given me that backing and confidence. They have told me to control games.
I consider myself lucky to have worked with each of them. André, Robbie and Rafa are all good people even before you consider they are great coaches. I’ve picked up different things from them all. André helped me settle. He gave me confidence as well, put me in the first XI, made me believe I belonged.
Robbie communicated on a personal level, talking to me all the time and impressing on me how important I was for him and his system of play. He changed my position, put me in the middle so I became more like a second striker. That’s a big step forward.
With Rafa, I played more like a striker still, which gave me the chance to add more goals and assists.
Whilst it remains to be seen if Mourinho’s adjustments will have a positive or negative impact on the 25 year old, what of his future in the national team, with next summer’s showpiece in Brazil looming?
Up until now, Mata has been a victim of Spain’s strength in-depth in the creative department, with luminaries such as Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, and David Silva ahead of him in the pecking order. Add to that the likes of Jesus Navas, Pedro and even David Villa – due to the system Spain employs – and it’s perhaps a little easier to understand why he hasn’t earned as many caps as his talent warrants.
Things aren’t set to get any easier either, with Thiago Alcântara and Isco following in his precocious footsteps and starring in this summer’s victorious Under-21 tournament; both ready to make the inevitable step-up to the senior squad on a consistent basis.
However, surely the time has come for Spain to fully appreciate just what a talent Mata is. The latest evidence indicates this could be the case ,with 9 appearances for his country already in 2013 – the most he’s made in any single year since making his debut in 2009.
Many feel this long-overdue and have been left astounded that Vicente Del Bosque has taken so long to put his faith in a player who’s arguably surged ahead of both Fabregas and David Silva on the domestic front over the last season at least.
He can play as a [number] 10, a striker, and has loads of goals in him. I knew him from Valencia through talking [to him] and he has a very British attitude; tough as they come, intelligent – I knew how he would do at Chelsea.
I’m convinced that whilst he is not your classical 10 he can play in that position because he’s so gifted, intelligent, quick – in my view he is a classic ‘second-striker’ – very clever at taking knock-downs, very quick at making space around a central striker. I have the highest regard for him as a player and a person. I think he’s captaincy material.
How does the player himself, assess his progress since moving to the Premier League?
I look back on these two years happily, says Mata. I know I said the first 12 months I had here were the best of my career but, since then, I have won the European Championship with Spain so it’s not been too bad. Everything has gone right so far: trophies, my life here in London, growing as a person. But this is only the start.
One can only concur with his somewhat humble summery. However, Spain should be getting a lot more from Juan Mata than they’re currently getting – and that’s not his fault. It’s about time they woke up and realised what an extraordinary footballer they’ve got, and that Juan, definitely does, matter.