There are two interesting, contradictory ways of framing Chelsea selling Juan Mata to Manchester 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, Manchester 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, Juan 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.
Between the March 2012, when Andre Villas-Boas was sacked, and the end of last season, when Jose Mourinho came in as manager, Mata was the focal point of the Chelsea attack. On the ball, he offers a threat from virtually any position in the final third -- out wide, he'll play one of those swooping, perfect crosses. From deep, he has the ability to find attacking runs no matter how the defence is set up. And in the box, he'll work a yard of space with a touch and then sweep one of those delicious finishes just past a helpless goalkeeper.
It's been breathtaking to watch him work. Last season Mata finished with 20 goals and 35 assists (although the latter figure is propped up heavily by set pieces, where he also excels). Chelsea scored 147 goals in 2012/13; their number ten was involved in 37 percent of them.
Small wonder that the supporters adore him. Fans have always favoured attack-minded players over defensive ones, and in many ways -- outside the reality-distorting universe of La Liga, at least -- there was a case to be made that Juan Mata was the premier attacking force in the game. On top of that, he was and remains both articulate and deeply thoughtful, gracious off the pitch to match his elegance between the lines.
By all rights, removing Mata from this Chelsea team should have caused collapse. But a funny thing happened this season. He was removed, in spirit if not in body, and the edifice has stubbornly failed to crumble. The arrival of Mourinho in the summer relieved the club of their best player in years, and at this point, after half a season of (by his standards) woeful performances his impending sale is essentially accounting.
And yet the Blues, without significantly upgrading the first eleven between this year and last, are much better. Mata's fall has corresponded to the rise of... everyone else.
Because the truth of Juan 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 us 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.
It's not totally insane to say that Chelsea were Juan Mata last season. They were certainly entirely reliant on him in order to win games, and he essentially willed us to 75 points and third place in the Premier League, securing that all-important Champions League berth. Until the return of Jose Mourinho over the summer (partially) broke the spell, the players and fans were enchanted by Mata. As he went, so did we.
It doesn't have to be that way. In weaning ourselves off our reliance on Mata, Chelsea have allowed Hazard and Oscar to come into their own, freed up the midfield and the fullbacks and shored up the defence. Mata can still play in the system as a playmaking winger or even a hyper-attacking threat off the bench (the latter option was probably Mourinho's preferred one, and there's no doubt he'd be enormously valuable as an impact substitute), but there was no way he'd ever have been as influential as he was during his apogee.
Juan Mata is still probably Chelsea's best player, or, at least, the player capable of the biggest performances in the right system. But that system no longer matches the evolution of the team. We're not desperately treading water in the hopes of finding the temporary havens of third and fourth every summer, relying on our magical number ten to keep us afloat. The club needed to -- and has, to an extent -- break free of that cycle.
That meant marginalising, and eventually selling, Juan Mata, the player who was both responsible for keeping the club alive and, in part, for holding it back. It's cannot have been an easy decision, but, in the long run, it will almost certainly be the right one.