Juan Mata’s name is written in Chelsea’s history books in the most permanent of permanent markers. Crumple the pages up, spill whatever liquid on them you like and the record will still show that it was Mata who took the corner that led to Didier Drogba scoring that goal to send a certain match in Munich to extra time.
Despite his irrefutable prominence in Chelsea lore, when Mata’s name is mentioned, a bittersweet mixture of feelings are likely stirred up. It’s a heady cocktail of fond remembrance and ‘what if’ conjectures. Satisfying as that Munich corner was, there’s another Mata-moment from Chelsea’s scattershot 2012-13 season that followed, which is probably more symbolic of his stellar, but ultimately brief time at Stamford Bridge.
As the final seconds ticked down in Chelsea’s 2013 FA Cup quarterfinal match against Manchester United at Old Trafford, the Blues found themselves level with the Red Devils despite having trailed by two goals at half time. Second-half goals that certainly had nothing to do with Rafael Benitez’s half time talk, from Eden Hazard and Ramires, had brought Chelsea back on level terms.
Seeking one last push for a Chelsea winner, David Luiz surged forward (David Luiz always ‘surges,’ he never ‘runs’) with the ball and lofted a pass into the United penalty area that reached Mata. The Spaniard then contorted himself around an awkward Jonny Evans and fired a shot that was surely destined to greet the back of the net and advance Chelsea to the semifinals. It didn’t. United keeper David de Gea flailed his foot at the ball to deflect the shot irritatingly wide of goal, and the match concluded in a 2-2 draw.
Forget, briefly, the ridiculous Demba Ba karate-kick goal (and Mata’s fine assist to set up the goal) that progressed Chelsea to the semifinals in the replay at Stamford Bridge anyway, and focus instead on the disappointment of Mata’s shot, a shot that must have looked like it was going to be a match-winning shot to literally everyone in the stadium not named ‘David de Gea’, being forced agonizingly adrift of its target. Mata, who was earmarked by many to be the cornerstone of a Drogba/Lampard/Terry-less future at SW6, was right on the verge of authoring another iconic Chelsea moment. Then, suddenly, that moment didn’t happen. Less than a year later, Mata’s Chelsea career as a whole would suffer a similarly abrupt demise.
It is cruelly poetic that the architect of that indomitable Drogba/Lampard/Terry-era at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho, was seen as the primary catalyst in ensuring that Mata would play no part in any ensuing era at Stamford Bridge, indomitable or otherwise. When Mourinho returned to Chelsea for his second stint as manager in June 2013, Mata had just collected his second consecutive Chelsea Player of the Year honor. In spite of Mata possessing a playing style and diminutive frame unlike the archetypal Mouinho player (think the box-to-box versatility of Frank Lampard or the rock solid physique of Michael Essien), it was still assumed by most that he would feature in the newly self-anointed Happy One’s plans. Mata was just too good, right? And besides, hadn’t football evolved?
Barcelona were not far removed from amassing a gaggle of trophies under Pep Guardiola with a collection of smooth-passing midfielders who sure seemed to play a lot more like Mata than Essien. And at Euros 2008 and 2012 and World Cup 2010, Spain further proved that methodically passing your opponents to death was an extremely effective way of winning football matches — Mata himself was a part of, but did not feature much, for Spain in those 2010 and 2012 tournaments, though he did score in the Euro 2012 final against Italy as a substitut. The future of football appeared set to be ruled by creative passers with Mata’s skill set.
The world around him may change, but Mourinho, resolutely, remains the same (aside from maybe looking a bit crankier these days in the Old Trafford dugout than he did in his more effervescent younger days). Supposed tactical evolution be damned, it did not take long for grumblings to emerge from the freshly re-appointed Mourinho regarding the all-around play of Chelsea’s beloved number ten. ”In this moment, Oscar is my number ten and, if anyone tells me Oscar has not been Chelsea’s best player this season, I’d have to disagree. I have to prove to the fans that I am good. Now (Mata) must do the same,” Mourinho said in September of the 2013-14 season. It may seem absurd now, considering the manner in which Oscar’s own Chelsea career fizzled, but for a moment (particularly in the first half of the 2013-14 season) the Brazilian looked like the electrifying yet industrious player of Mourinho’s dreams. Mata’s previously indispensable role at Chelsea was quickly becoming less essential.
As unsettling as it was to see Mata’s influence in Chelsea’s first team diminishing, it was probably more unsettling to witness his exasperated reaction to being subbed off in the second half of the Blues’ New Year’s Day 2014 match away to Southampton. Because as much as Mata’s pinpoint accurate through passes were loved, his terminally positive disposition was even more adored. Mata was a player who seemed to enjoy playing football as much as fans enjoyed watching him play football. And that joy was infectious. The two previous seasons at Chelsea had been rollercoaster rides that likely made the engineers at Alton Towers envious, but Mata’s cheerful attitude was an ever-constant tonic. To see that drastic a shift in Mata’s demeanor was ominous.
Fittingly, in that Southampton match, Mata was subbed off for the player Mourinho was increasingly viewing as Chelsea’s ideal number 10: Oscar. After a bland first half from the Blues at the St. Mary’s Stadium with Mata operating as the team’s central attacking playmaker, the Oscar substitution ignited Chelsea’s attack in the second half. Not long after coming on, Oscar struck the post with an audacious curling shot that Fernando Torres headed home. That bit of creative boldness was a mere appetizer for what was to come from Oscar. He would go on to add an assist and a goal, each positive contribution functioning as another scoop of dirt to be thrown onto the grave of Mata’s Chelsea career. Before the month was over, Mata was made Manchester United’s then-record transfer signing. Once integral, then rapidly viewed as surplus to requirements, Mata was finished at Chelsea.
Much discussion has occurred this season regarding players who once played for, and were subsequently sold, by Chelsea. Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku have all had successful (and ‘successful’ is a ridiculous understatement in Salah’s case) seasons wearing kits that are distinctly not royal blue. Mata was more popular as a Chelsea player than all of those other names combined, yet his departure has become viewed in much less regrettable terms than any of the other three. As Mata has only been sporadically great for Manchester United — it is a tremendous irony that he is currently managed by Mourinho — it is not difficult to understand why those perceptions have flipped.
Football hasn’t come to be ruled by players with Mata’s skill set. Quite the opposite has occurred, in fact. The classic number ten (and Mata could be a poster child for the classic number ten role), who lives to lurk in pockets of space in the final third waiting for the perfect moment to play a killer, defense-splitting pass, has become an endangered species. Space and time, vital elements for a classic number ten to thrive, are scarce commodities in the modern game.
The defining influence of those possession-craving Barcelona and Spain teams hasn’t necessarily been how those teams kept the ball; it’s what those teams did during the occasions when they lost the ball that has actually sent greater shockwaves throughout football. Guardiola famously wanted his Barcelona teams (and the Spanish national team was greatly influenced by what was going on at the Camp Nou at this time) to maniacally press the opposition when possession was lost, seeking to win the ball back within five seconds of losing it. If possession wasn’t wont back in a five second time frame, his teams would then retreat into a compact defensive shape, becoming extremely difficult for the opposition to play through.
Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp and other modern managers have eagerly grabbed and stretched those principles to even zanier extremes. In a recent article for ESPNFC, Simon Kuper posited that contemporary counter pressing (or gegenpressing – essentially pressing the opposition immediately after losing possession of the ball) is so intense and so divorced from previous iterations of pressing tactics that it deserves its own moniker: ‘storming.’ Teams throughout Europe are disrupting their opponents with compact, quick, interconnected movement to regain possession. For managers like Klopp, there’s a desirable controlled chaos created by this approach. Even Burnley’s Sean Dyche, a manager who would seem to be at the opposite end of the tactical spectrum from Klopp and Guardiola, has said he’s had his teams study film of Guardiola’s Barcelona for the sole purpose of taking note of the Blaugrana’s compact positioning without the ball.
This pursuit across Europe of space and time eliminating frenzy has meant that physical, lung-busting players (i.e. not players like Mata) have seen their value increase recently. The player currently leading the Champions League in assists this season? That would be Liverpool’s James Milner, no one’s idea of a classic number ten. When the ball is won high in the opposition’s half with their players disorganized and disoriented, it doesn’t take an expert locksmith of a passer to produce an assist. Languid, creative playmakers that lack the ability to aggressively press opponents or the pace to rapidly burst forward when possession is turned over (i.e. players like Mata) have concurrently seen their value drop as a result of these tactical developments.
Mata has still, ultimately, had a commendable career, even though it hasn’t been up to the standard suggested by his first two seasons at Chelsea. Sometimes starter, sometimes super-sub, and generally deployed as a wide attacker as opposed to a number ten at Manchester United, there are still glimpses of his magic. The frenetic nature of modern football has done his progression as a player no favors, though. Watching Mata in this era has been akin to watching a great magician perform at Madison Square Garden…a janitor’s closet at Madison Square Garden. There’s no room for the magician, and there’s a cluttered mess of mops and buckets falling all around him as he’s trying to work his illusory wonder. Those ‘what if’ conjectures that are conjured in Chelsea’s supporters’ minds at the utterance of Mata’s name are likely not extrapolated out to glorious conclusions. The past may well be best left in the past, but it’s worth acknowledging, particularly in Mata’s case, that history can never truly be unwritten.