Moodiest of the Blues reserves special place for work-shy Chelsea wizard Mata
Attacking midfielder’s role in doubt as Mourinho makes point to insistent club hierarchy
Chelsea’s Juan Mata is spending increasingly more time warming the bench: Photograph: Nick Potts/PA
Chelsea’s win against Fulham was the type of Premier League game that leaves you brooding on the brevity of life. It’s hard to suppress the thought that you will be haunted in your terminal decline by the knowledge of all the happy, healthy hours squandered watching the likes of Chelsea’s 2-0 victory over Fulham.
It wasn’t that there was much wrong with Chelsea’s performance. They dispatched Fulham with the efficiency of a vet putting an elderly dog to sleep. They did what they had to do. If anything, rather than blaming Chelsea for doing the bare minimum, you slightly resented Fulham for not making a game of it.
The two goal margin was better than Chelsea had got in the same match last season when Fulham escaped with a goalless draw at a time Rafael Benitez was chasing his first league win as Chelsea manager.
There was one point of similarity with last season’s match, which is that on both occasions Juan Mata was left out of Chelsea’s starting XI. But the crowd reaction to Mata’s absence was quite different. Last year they waved “Rafa Out” banners and chanted, “We Want Our Chelsea Back!” This year they grumbled and tweeted a bit about the missing Mata, but there was no mass dissent.
The reason for the difference is obvious: the supporters disliked Benitez and wanted him gone, whereas they like Mourinho and want him to succeed. And the emotional fact of liking or disliking the manager colours a crowd’s assessment of his decisions.
That gives the lie to José Mourinho’s remarks on Friday – repeated again on Saturday evening – that “the past is history, even my past. I’ve always said I don’t want to be protected because of what I did in the past.” Mourinho’s past is what gives him the leeway to make decisions like leaving out Juan Mata and David Luiz without provoking uproar in the stands.
It must be frustrating for Mata to discover that his brilliant Chelsea past cannot protect him from becoming the victim of a managerial power-play against the club hierarchy.
Mourinho’s indifference towards Mata was, initially, bewildering. Speculative explanations were floated. Was Mata’s association with the Spanish national team being held against him? Did Mourinho not like the idea of a key player in his team being friendly with old enemies from Madrid like Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos? It seemed crazy, but in the absence of a straightforward explanation the rumours gained ground.
However, this weekend has clarified matters. The sidelining of Mata might be Mourinho’s way of showing his employers that he doesn’t like being told how to do his job.
On Saturday evening, Mourinho reminded everyone why Pep Guardiola called him “the f*****g chief” of the press room with a masterful interview on Sky. Adopting the slightly weary tone of a parent patiently helping a slow child with its homework, Mourinho demolished criticism ventured by Ruud Gullit and Jamie Redknapp. And in the process he made the exclusion of Mata sound reasonable, even obvious.
According to Mourinho, the reason there is no place for Chelsea’s best attacking player is that “the club” has given him a directive that the side are to play attacking football.
The manager made it sound like he welcomed the club’s suggestion even while he spoke with evident nostalgia of the old, direct, power-based Chelsea style – developed, naturally, by Mourinho – that had secured so many titles.
It was, however, his unfortunate duty to point out that a team wanting to play attacking, proactive football in the opponent’s half has to work much harder than a side content to sit deep and hit the centre forward with long balls.
In Mourinho’s account, Chelsea have spent a couple of years playing defensive “low-block” football.
Mata’s covering play
The system had suited Mata because all it asked of him was to hang around behind the striker waiting for his team-mates to give him the ball. If his statistics looked far superior to those of Oscar, that was only because he didn’t have to spend half the game chasing his full-back up and down the wing.
Of course, Mourinho could easily use Mata in the middle and play Oscar or another player in the wide role. Until now, nobody had noticed that Mata’s defensive contribution was suspect. But of course, this isn’t really about Mata’s qualities as a player. It’s about Mourinho marking his territory.
He is saying that he will only go along with club directives about the style of play on his own terms. Chelsea can have their proactive style. But if that’s what they want, then they must accept that their most popular player might have to be a casualty of the transition.
The message is that you can try to tell Mourinho what to do, but you will rarely be satisfied with the results. At some point, it becomes easier to let him do things his own way.
Mourinho’s history testifies to his ruthlessness when it comes to internal club politics. At Real Madrid, he forced out sporting director Jorge Valdano. It’s a shame that this time one of the best players in the Premier League appears to have been caught in the crossfire. But Mourinho wouldn’t be the successful manager he is if he worried about the fate of the little people.