Why is Chelsea's star Juan Mata stuck on the bench?

Wednesday September 25th, 2013

Chelsea fans held up this sign directed at Jose Mourinho during the Champions League last week.
Clive Rose/Getty Images

Haruki Murakami's novels tend to focus on ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations; the characters feel dislocated and the atmosphere is often surreal. Juan Mata might not go that far to describe his current situation at Chelsea, but the Spanish midfielder, a fan of Murakami, has been the most surprising victim of the changes made by new coach Jose Mourinho this season.

There was surprise before the season began when the Sunday Times reported that Mourinho would be willing to listen to offers for Mata and David Luiz.

For a start, Mata had been Chelsea's player of the year for the last two years.

Those two players had last season usurped John Terry to become leaders of the team, representative of a new, younger, Chelsea. Terry's position in the dressing-room had also changed: "No-one listens to him any more," one Chelsea insider told So Foot magazine. "For a time, the other players, those who were younger and new to the club, like Ramires, Luiz and Mata, could be intimidated by him. But that was then; it's over, now they have the power."

Not any more. An even more recent power shift is happening, and this time Mourinho is at the forefront. Luiz is in and out of the side while Mata has only started three games this season. He and Luiz were not even in the 18-man squad that beat Fulham in the Premier League last week.

Mata did play as the number ten, behind Fernando Torres, in Tuesday's Capital One Cup win over Swindon, and created the first goal with a shot that the goalkeeper parried into Torres' path. More significant to Mourinho was that Mata gave away a corner in the last minute with a last-ditch tackle when he was supporting left-back Ryan Bertrand. That was what the Portuguese wanted to see.

Chelsea under Mourinho does not play a 4-2-3-1 system. It plays 4-4-1-1 with Oscar behind the forward, and the two wide players as midfielders who have to attack and defend. Mourinho has said that Oscar is his first-choice number ten and fair enough: he's played well this season and has added goals and strength to an encouraging debut campaign. That leaves five attacking players in the squad -- as well as Mata, there's Eden Hazard, Andre Schurrle, Kevin de Bruyne and Willian -- competing for the two wide-midfield spots.

"I can play on either side of midfield or behind the striker," Mata said last season. "I like having the ball at my feet, making the match more fluid; assists are my job, but I also like scoring goals as that's the best thing in football. Everyone wants to score, that's what football is about and it's the rarest thing on the pitch."

That was before Mourinho came along, and with the winger's marginalization has come the conspiracy theories: are Mata and Cesar Azpilicueta, another Spaniard with only one appearance this season, being sidelined because of their nationality, or their closeness to Spanish teammates with whom Mourinho clashed at Real Madrid? Surely not!

Mata's situation has been compared to that of ex-Chelsea midfielder Joe Cole, who in October 2004 was criticized by Mourinho after scoring a winning goal against Liverpool: "Joe can be a regular but he has to improve when the team needs him to be part of a defensive organization." Cole was dropped for the next game (although he went on to call Mourinho the best coach in the world).

There may be similarities, but does Mata really track back less than Hazard, whose (lack of) defensive work last season often left Ashley Cole isolated, and was the source of many goals conceded last season? If Mourinho wanted a wide player who tracks back, was Willian really the answer?

Reports in France suggested that Mata was keen on a deadline-day transfer to Paris Saint-Germain though coach Laurent Blanc recently told RMC Radio that he did not know that an offer had been made for the player. "The only one we tried for, to my knowledge, was [Mesut] Ozil," he said. Already the speculation is growing that a January move -- to upwardly mobile teams Atletico Madrid or Napoli - might be on the cards.

In the meantime, Mata has to bide his time and wait for an opportunity to prove himself again. On Saturday, Chelsea travel to Spurs and a reunion with former coach Andre Villas-Boas -- "a really good guy," Mata said. In the corresponding fixture just under a year ago, Mata scored twice and set up another as Chelsea won 4-2 at White Hart Lane. The fourth goal came when Mata chased down and tackled Kyle Walker on the touchline and squared it to Daniel Sturridge. Mourinho would have been proud. Eleven months later, the landscape has changed for Mata in a way that no-one could have predicted. At least he has a bit more time to read some Murakami.

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