x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Juan Mata needs a break, not a transfer away from Chelsea

Likeliest explanation for benching Spanish midfielder is probably the simplest one: he has been playing non-stop football for so long, writes Jonathan Wilson.

Juan Mata has been playing non-stop football for the past three seasons.
Juan Mata has been playing non-stop football for the past three seasons.

Perhaps we should break a habit built up by a decade of experience and take Jose Mourinho's words at face value.

Perhaps there really is nothing odd going on and Juan Mata is truly weary and feeling the effects of a pre-season injury.

After all, with the 2012 Confederations Cup, the Euros, the European Under 21 Championship, the World Cup and the 2009 Confederations Cup, he has been playing almost continuously for five years.

Perhaps in a month or so, Mata will be rejuvenated and playing a key part at the front of Chelsea's midfield.

But for the moment, at least, the situation seems odd. Mata has been Chelsea's Player of the Year for each of the past two seasons. Last season, when Chelsea's progress in the Europa League and the two domestic cups placed a huge strain on the squad, he just kept going, racking up 64 matches in total, scoring 20 goals and setting up 35 others.

He was indefatigable, a relentless presence, who somehow still found time to visit pretty much every tourist site in London and post pictures of it on Facebook.

He was unassuming and likable, quietly and implacably doing his job extremely well, while demonstrating a spirit of curiosity rare in footballers, clearly determined to make the most of his time in London.

Yet suddenly, he has been frozen out, starting only one of Chelsea's Premier League games so far – being taken off after 65 minutes of the 2-1 win over Aston Villa. When his father was seen at Arsenal's Uefa Champions League play-off victory over Fenerbahce, conclusions were drawn.

Perhaps more significant, though, was that Chelsea have felt the need to clarify that Mata is staying, and that Mata himself has let it be known that he has no intention of moving, almost as though he suddenly feels unsure of his position and wants to clarify that if something does happen, it is not of his volition.

Certainly it is hard not to look at Chelsea's phalanx of attacking midfielders and wonder why they have accumulated so many: to Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar they have added Andre Schurrle and Willian, and brought Kevin de Bruyne back from loan, while also signing Christian Atsu, before immediately loaning him out.

It is true that Marko Marin and Victor Moses have been loaned out, but six players for three positions does not compute.

But what bafflles is why, if he was looking to off-load somebody, Mourinho would choose Mata. It is true that Mourinho tends to prefer muscular and dynamic players, but Mata has thrived in the supposedly physical Premier League and is far from lazy.

Surely it can not be that he is freezing out Spanish players (Cezar Azpilicueta has yet to be picked) as a result of his unhappiness in his final days in Madrid, or that he mistrusts a player who is a friend of some of those with whom he fell out at the Bernebeu?

It is more believable that Mourinho is making a point that this is his team and past performances do not have any bearing any more. But the likeliest explanation is probably the simplest one: Mata needs a break.

The problem is that, in the Machiavellian world of Mourinho, is that it is hard to believe anything is ever straightforward.

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