Ruud van Nistelrooy scored 150 goals in 219 appearances during his five year stint at Old Trafford. The Red Devils won two Premier League titles and one FA Cup with the Dutchman and he is regarded as a club legend by many of United’s supporters – despite his ill-tempered departure in the Summer of 2006. However, United eclipsed those trophies won in the three years following, winning three further league titles and one Champions League. The United side between 2006 and 2009 was arguably Ferguson’s best team in his 26 year reign.
That United side were based around the attacking trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and Carlos Tevez; and played a fast tempo style of football that United have managed only once since (the opening five games of the 11-12 campaign). The trio aforementioned were so good individually and as a unit that the rest of the team needn’t push forward too far forward as goals undoubtedly emanated from them. This was a contrast from the United side before that based its entire game around Ruud van Nistelrooy, with the full backs and midfielders needing to push further forward to supply the Dutch marksman. After Ronaldo and Tevez left, United once again needed to push more players forward, and while they scored more goals in the 2009-10 season without those two United conceded more often. Less points were won and ultimately United lost the league title back to Chelsea.
The 2012-13 season was a particularly great one for Juan Mata. He scored 20 goals and assisted 35 of Chelsea’s other goals. The Spaniard was nominated for Premier League Player of the Year, also winning Player of the Year at Chelsea. However, rumours have circulated this Summer suggesting that the returning Jose Mourinho may not have a place for the Spanish playmaker in his side. Although these have been denied, there is an undoubted truth that Mourinho is planning ahead without Mata. Much like van Nistelrooy, Chelsea’s system has been based around one player, and although he has stood out above the rest it’s easy to argue that having four players so high up the pitch will burden the side, especially defensively.
Defensively, Juan Mata as an individual doesn’t offer anything significant, neither did van Nistelrooy. The Spaniard rarely presses that high for Chelsea, and doesn’t have the physical presence required to take the ball off of opponents. While the latter is true for Hazard, Oscar, and De Bruyne; they have the pace and stamina that is needed to press teams (something Mourinho’s side will need to do in order to play in the style of Barcelona, as Roman Abramovich so clearly desires). The pace held by those three also allows Chelsea to break quickly, and although Mata’s not slow, he doesn’t have the speed possessed by Eden Hazard and Oscar in particular. Mata’s style of play favours a system that builds attacks in a more patient way.
If Mata was as good a striker as he is an attacking midfielder (something Chelsea could do with), then he would probably play a more pivotal part in Mourinho’s plans. A striker would be on the end of Chelsea’s attacks, and therefore not slowing them down. However, the position occupied by Mata last season was by far the most important in terms of creating attacks, and although he functioned in that role extremely well, he would slow down Chelsea in the final third. This possibly resulted in Hazard and Oscar not performing as well as they could do, and will do, without the Spain international.
If Sunday’s 2-0 victory against Hull was anything to go by, Mourinho doesn’t have a place in his team set specifically for last season’s Player of the Year, as Benitez did last year. Chelsea’s midfield five was fluid on Sunday, and in particular the position of Oscar, in the middle where Mata will be deployed when he does play. Oscar dropped deeper frequently, allowing Ramires and Frank Lampard to push on. Kevin De Bruyne played this role at times, with both of the youngsters using their pace to cover a lot of ground and pressing Hull all over the pitch, most noticeable in the opening 20 minutes. An attacking trio of Hazard, Oscar, and De Bruyne is very interchangeable, as was the case on Sunday. Mata isn’t quite so well cut for playing in this system, perhaps because of his reliance on his left foot – i.e. not being as ambidextrous as the wonderful Eden Hazard.
It is also worth noting that a match against Hull at home might be an instance where Mourinho will play with a more attacking system. Against bigger sides, Mourinho is likely to cut back on one forward, in all likelihood being that central attacking midfield position. While Oscar holds the speed to also play on the wing in a counter-attacking system, Mata doesn’t. De Bruyne can also play deeper than Mata, being able to drop deeper and help the team defend, possibly in more of a 4-3-3 system rather than the 4-2-3-1 formation commonly used under Villas Boas, Di Matteo and Benitez.
Mata will still be an important player for Chelsea this season, however his involvement is likely to decrease gradually; especially when Oscar, De Bruyne and van Ginkel improve. One potential position for Mata in a 4-3-3 system could be at the head of it. Although relatively untested at playing this deep, Mata’s ability is likely to be wasted playing there, because so far in Mata’s Chelsea career his major contributions have been in the opposition’s half. Even if you ignore the tactical side of Mourinho’s plans, Mata has a challenge in the coming months and further avoiding being displaced by the Brazilian Oscar – who scored on Sunday. The position Mata plays best in is also Oscar’s preferred position, and it would be a struggle for any attacking midfielder to keep their place secure from him.
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