When I heard the Juan Mata rumors pop up again, I was upset. There can be no denying. However, more upsetting was the general reaction by our community: comments ranged from confounding to unfounded. We all know that Mata is playing less than other attacking midfielders and might want to see his way ou-- Oh, what? No? He's got more minutes in the Premier League than Willian and Schürrle? Wow!
This sparked other discussions, about first teams, strength of squad, rotation, parity, and other such issues. I have a lot of thoughts on these issues, so I'm regurgitating them in here and throwing it together as a halfway* point review. I will also talk about how I view our title chances and give an alternative look at the league table, because I might as well dive all the way in if I'm going to stick my toes in the water.
If we do any significant purchasing in the winter window, I might give a breakdown of that as well (probably in the vein of my summer transfer review, which actually has held up surprisingly well).
*I know this isn't the halfway point of the league, but it will suffice.
Juan Little Tantrum and the Fans Got Scared
Said you're going to play with Lavezzi in the Charles de Gualle square.
These Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song lyrics write themselves, really. We've heard a lot about how Juan Mata isn't a Jose Mourinho type player. We've heard a lot about how he's been "benched". We've heard a lot of nonsense.
Let's start by discussing the "Mourinho player" business. This hasn't exactly been an uncommon opinion; the Daily Mail suggest here that Mata wouldn't fit Mourinho's system because he isn't direct enough. This, despite that Juan Mata's most exact doppelganger was a huge success under Mourinho (Özil; if Mourinho really hated fanciful 10s, wouldn't he have played less?). This InsideFutbol article (which is full of dubious claims, I should mention) claims that Mata would fly with Wenger but is "lost" with Mourinho (again, Özil is actually statistically worse with Arsenal than he was with Madrid...).
These claims seem to suggest that Mourinho doesn't like creative players. We've shown that not to be true (EDEN FREAKING HAZARD ALSO PLAYS ALL THE TIME, EVERYBODY). He has made a calculated decision to build our team based on the positives and negatives of Oscar and Hazard (see below). That doesn't mean Mata is "lost" or isn't a "Mourinho player" (to which I'd just say this: Deco, Joe Cole, Robben, Sneijder, Özil).
Now, a review of minutes.
Note: "Other" here includes Internationals; potentially the Super Cup, if Statbunker tracks it.
So, first things first: I actually made an error in my assertions, something I want to apologize to the community for. When I looked up the minutes database, I just filtered the entirety of the 2013/14 season and didn't think to look to see if internationals were included in those numbers. They were. So, some slight changes to things I've been saying:
1) Willian slightly edges Mata in total Chelsea minutes. However, this is largely due to the League Cup. Willian has played 300 League Cup minutes (to Mata's 180), but has the edge over Mata in CL minutes (333 to Mata's 103). Mata has played considerably more than Willian in the league, however (833 to Willian's 625). We'll discuss the implications of this with respect to my previous points in a minute.
2) Hazard has more PL minutes than Oscar (1657 to Oscar's 1204) but less in the CL (303 to Oscar's 454). This gives him a higher total.
Again, my deepest apologies for the error. However, my point with these numbers still stands. The idea that Mata has been "benched" this season is largely inaccurate: he plays more in the Premier League than Willian by a considerable margin and has been an integral player to our season. In total, Willian has played 142 more minutes than Juan Mata this season. However, 120 minutes of that difference can be explained by the League Cup. The extra CL minutes have come in the last Steaua game (where we played our "depth team"), against Basel, and the away Schalke game.
Another point that often gets used here is the idea that Mata doesn't play in "important matches". Understand that this is an incredibly nebulous term, which is something I get frustrated with. This line of thinking suggests that since Mata didn't play against Arsenal and Liverpool, he is not playing in important matches. Even if you assume that some matches are really more important than others (something that is dubious), this is frustrating from a statistical point of view.
Which matches are important? He didn't play against Liverpool or Arsenal, but he did play against Everton and Tottenham (off the bench, yes, but he was also still recovering from injury at the time). This also ignores context; the Arsenal game was being played in a pretty terrible rainstorm, conditions which would limit the effectiveness of a creative passer who likes the ball to bend to his will (which is true of Mata). Many people have already pointed this out, but it's not like Mata's Arsenal doppelganger, Mesut Özil, was very good that day (he was actually pretty bad).
So, please don't add arbitrary cutoffs that minimize an already small data set. What we've seen is that Mata will play a lot, but will be played when his style is most effective for the day.
What does this mean for the idea that Mata has been benched by Mourinho? That it isn't true. In terms of minutes, Juan Mata is still receiving a large portion of minutes, especially in the league, where he has engrained himself as a first team player.
Oh Wait, Did I Just Say First Team?
Continuing the discussion about Juan Mata leads to an interesting idea: do Chelsea have a first XI? What is a first XI? Some teams in the league have pretty nailed-on starting XIs: you might think of Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, or Southampton (I have no idea on Southampton, actually). However, even Arsenal make changes to their first team based on the opponent.
Where we differ from those teams is in our overall flexibility. We don't have a nailed-on starting XI. We have a set of Untouchables: Cech, Ivanovic, Terry, Ramires, Hazard, and Oscar. The other players that aren't included in this list (say, Azpilicueta, Cahiill, or Lampard) usually play, but can be substituted depending on the opponent or situation.
What a great situation! We do not have massive talent gaps between our "first team" and our "second team"; recall that our depth team defeated Arsenal's first-and-a-half team pretty handily in the League Cup.
This season, more than any other, has disabused me of the notion of a starting XI. Last season and the one before we had fairly clear starting XIs. This season, we can drop Oscar for Mata in the middle and throw Willian on the right in Mata's place. We can also throw Schürrle on some flank. We can go 4-3-3. We can go 4-2-3-1. We have many more options.
Essentially, there is now no longer a true starting XI. Outside of the New Untouchables, there are players who can be replaced as needed tactically. That is a luxury that only City have in the league, and one that seems to have swept by many of our community. If, say, Özil doesn't play for Arsenal, there's is a very real drop of quality in their squad. His omission would almost never be by choice. For us, dropping any of Hazard, Oscar, or Mata leaves us with entirely adequate replacements. If we want to counterattack, we can remove Mata and play Willian. If we want to dominate the ball, we can play Mazacar. If we want to dominate the midfield, we can go 4-3-3 and play with two wingers (a formation that often takes off Oscar, it should be noted).
So, the idea that Mata isn't a first team player is flawed statistically (third most minutes of our attacking midfielders, in other words a starter) and conceptually, because we don't have a real starting XI.
Think about how this gives us an advantage. Every player on the pitch represents a set of positives and negatives that they bring to the team. For example, Willian brings positives of work rate, pace, and power on the ball with a big negative in decision making. Mata brings positives of vision, passing, and control with negatives of work rate and defensive stability. If we were in the situation of Arsenal or Liverpool, we wouldn't have much choice in juggling the team's positive and negative contributions list, we would just have to play a certain set of players with not much else to do.
We, however, can carefully craft our team selection to bring out the most desirable list of positives and negatives. Want to counterattack? Play Willian on the right. Want to play an aggressive defense? Luiz partners Cahill or Terry. Want to play with attacking fullbacks? Azpilicueta and Cole.
Want passing vision in the midfield? Too bad, buy a new player (seriously though.)
But, we have a true squad. So, please keep that in mind when trying to peg Mata's playing time into binary switches.
Premier League Parity
Apparently people like to argue about whether "parity" means "equality" or "crappiness". There is a lot of parity in the league this year, so everyone says, but what does that mean? Is it true?
As an attempt to get a real answer, I looked at the points total of each position in the league last season and compared it with what would be the points total of each position in the league this season (prorated over a 38 game season). The results...
What this shows is that this season, first place is worse than last season, but that second place through ninth place will all accrue more points this year than last if they keep their current pace. This makes it harder to get a real leg up on the rest of the table since there are so many potential pitfalls. Instead of there being three or four teams that are clearly elevated above the rest, this season sees a tier of three top teams (similar to last season), with a second tier of four or five teams that are challenging the first tier. There seems to be a merging of the middle class and upper class in the Premier League. We'll see how that goes.
I think this is because teams are worse at the top level than they used to be (for instance, we're not as good as we were in 2005 and neither is United. It remains to be seen whether City is as good as we were then), but also because teams at the middle level are better than they used to be. You might disagree.
This was long and probably rambly, but I just wanted to give some explanations of some issues that are currently affecting our club. Despite my unfortunate error in calculation, we see that Juan Mata is far from done at the club, and has done what we thought he would do: force his way into starting contention. Some of you might disagree with the idea that we've structured the team around Oscar and Hazard instead of Mata, but we're performing better this season than last, so there would seem to be some method to the madness.