x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

It seems Chelsea’s new manager is punishing the team’s best player the past two seasons for his lack of defence, says Andrew Cole

Chelsea's Juan Mata, right. Eddie Keogh / Reuters
Chelsea's Juan Mata, right. Eddie Keogh / Reuters

I had not been at Manchester United long when I bumped into Bryan Robson, the legendary captain, who had not long left the club.

We spoke about Eric Cantona, my strike partner. Bryan made the point that sometimes all you had to do was get him the ball, because he was the one player in the side capable of making something magical happen.

Cantona was a “luxury” player, the final piece in United’s jigsaw that had helped them win the league for the first time in 26 years.

At one stage in his United career, they won five games 1-0 and I think Cantona scored each of the goals.

To say luxury is to imply lazy, and that is not true of Cantona. He didn’t work as much as the other players, but he wasn’t lazy.

Every great side needs a luxury player, a match winner capable of skill that none of his other teammates can provide.

The top professionals are prepared to carry a player because they know he will win a game for them, but they also expect them to work as much as possible.

Mesut Ozil is a luxury player. Get him the ball in certain areas and he will produce.

Players will work harder for him, they will always be looking to give him the ball.

Ozil and his like offer something different. Real Madrid try to fill their attacking positions with talents like this, sublime footballers who can produce magic and transform a game.

That is why several of them are the most expensive players in the world.

Not every club can afford a luxury footballer.

David Ginola would stroll around the pitch asking for the ball, but he didn’t work hard enough when things didn’t go well.

Bolton had Martin Petrov. He was undeniably talented, but it is far harder to carry a luxury player like that in a struggling team. It’s like playing with 10 men and few teams can get away with that.

Petrov didn’t track back against United in one game, leaving the left-back exposed. All United’s goals came down his side.

It was harder for Bolton’s players to get Petrov on the ball in the right areas when they were seldom in the right areas themselves because they were largely defending.

When I played at clubs like Blackburn, Fulham and Manchester City, these teams didn’t have space for luxury.

Every player had to work like a dog. If you didn’t do that then you wouldn’t be in the side for long.

I’ve heard Juan Mata described as a luxury player.

He is an outstanding footballer, but he works hard.

His “problem” is that he is not a defensive player and his inability to play the defensive side of the game has cost him his place in Chelsea’s side.

I’m baffled.

I don’t want to criticise Jose Mourinho. I love what he brings to football, love his charisma and the way he goes about his job.

He’s very successful, too.

Players love playing for him, yet Mata – Chelsea’s best player in each of the past two seasons - is not getting that chance.

Mourinho has to find a place for Mata.

Mourinho’s Chelsea found space for midfield talents who didn’t defend before - or rather his old Chelsea teams did.

Did Frank Lampard have to defend? Not really.

He could rely on Claude Makelele as a holding midfielder, an insurance player who would stay back when he went beyond the forwards.

That is one reason why Lampard scored so many goals.

Mata scored 20 goals for Chelsea last season because he had the same support.

There is no way a midfielder who plays farther back, such as Steven Gerrard does or Paul Scholes did, can score so many goals. It is impossible.

Mata has run beyond strikers and is a threat in attack. Why should he defend?

Does Eden Hazard defend?


And while Oscar buzzes about and works his butt off, he can’t defend, either.

Mata has played more games than any player in world football in the past few years, yet his performance levels haven’t dropped.

He has been the heartbeat of Chelsea. Stop him playing and you stop Chelsea playing.

That is a Chelsea team who were European champions in 2012 and Europa Cup winners in 2013.

Rafa Benitez had them playing very well at the end of last season.

Mourinho has dropped players in the past who have been a threat to his power, like Iker Casillas.

Does Mata look like the type of player to cause problems?

He seems more like a kid who wants to play, and nothing more.

If he isn’t able to do that then he is going to look elsewhere.

Who can blame him?

He’ll find no shortage of suitors who admire both his “luxury” talents and his work rate.

Andrew Cole’s column is written with the assistance of the European football correspondent Andy Mitten.