Valencia’s 23 year old winger/playmaker Juan Manuel Mata is set to become the biggest transfer for Chelsea this summer. With both clubs (and even the player) having announced the deal as agreed upon and simply awaiting a medical, Chelsea fans are now anxiously awaiting the debut of the diminutive Spaniard. Here are the top five reasons why he will be a perfect fit under Andres Villas-Boas.
1. Creative Spark
It is no secret that Chelsea have been looking for a creative player for their midfield, with the long-running Modric saga the most obvious example of a player searched for to fulfill that capacity. Although I am not convinced the Mata acquisition necessarily means an end to Chelsea’s Modric pursuit, there is no denying that the Spaniard will go a long way in helping Chelsea out in that department.
One of Mata’s greatest assets as a player is his vision and astounding passing ability in and around the box. He is a quick thinker who reads the game incredibly well, and he was consistently seen making audacious and-yet impeccable passes in a Valencia shirt the past few seasons. He had 17 assists in 43 appearances last season, ranking 5th overall in La Liga (joined by only one other non-Barca/Real player in the top 7) in that department. Had he been surrounded by better finishers the figures would be even more impressive, as plenty of Valencia fans would attest to.
It should also be noted how pivotal of a player Mata became for Valencia last year, mainly due to the sale of David Silva. Although Mata and Silva terrorized many defenses together two seasons ago, the departure of the now Manchester City man saw Mata granted a much freer role in the Valencia midfield. He evolved from a winger to a central playmaker superbly, and his consistency all year long was arguably Valencia’s major reason for finishing 3rd in the league and claiming an automatic Champions League spot.
2. Premier League Fit
Standing at 5’7″ Juan Mata is not the tallest of players, nor is he the strongest physically. The often re-used argument that will surely be heard around PL club fan-forums is whether Mata will be able to adapt to the physicality of the league. This is indeed an important factor to consider, albeit not many would argue that the Premier League is a lot less physical of a league today than it was a decade ago.
Perhaps the best comparison to make for Mata is his similarity to former teammate David Silva. They are the same height, and Mata is probably a little bit stronger. Although Silva took a few months to start showing his best form for Manchester City after his move last summer, he was sensational in the tail-end of last season and is already being touted for a superb second year (two goals in his first two games have helped support that belief). Mata is a very similar style of player; both are incredibly quick with superb first-touches, and they can usually guide the ball safely away from pressing opposition players. Mata has more tricks in the skills department, with clever backheels, various flicks, and even elasticos not uncommon to see.
What this all means is that Mata, like Silva, (and not too dissimilar from a certain Gianfranco Zola of Chelsea-lore) is a pre-emptive player. Before receiving the ball he already knows what he wants to do with it, and a charging player, physical or not, will usually be befuddled by the Spaniard’s first touch. His quick thinking is accompanied by supporting pace and speed, meaning he can actually pull off what he intends to do. Mata, like Silva before him, may need a few months to hone in on the quicker pace and physicality of the game, but he has all the necessary skills to adapt.
On top of this, Mata is also extremely hard-working. He has a never-give-up attitude that fits perfectly into the ethos of the Premier League, and he often rises to the occasion on the biggest of games. This is the type of attitude needed and wanted by Chelsea fans, and should ensure he quickly establishes himself as a fan-favorite. One could even say Mata could very well do it on a “wet Tuesday night at Stoke” (queue grunts).
Mata would be described by most as a left-winger, although he has played in several positions during his time at Valencia. He actually received his first few chances as a right-winger, and he was able to play well there in part because he is quite comfortable with both feet. He eventually moved to his more natural left-wing position as Vicente struggled with injuries and form. As previously mentioned, after the sale of David Silva to Manchester City last summer, Mata then evolved to play mostly as a #10, the creative lynchpin in Valencia’s most frequently used 4-2-3-1 system. He played more as a False-10 though, dropping deep and to the wings often, and usually to great effect.
Part of the reason he so easily adapted to a central playmaker position is that even as a winger he didn’t play it in the classic sense of the word, as he himself will tell you: ”I am not an old-style winger stuck right out on the wing and limited to running at people and getting crosses in. I like to drop inside and get between the lines. I tend not to try to take people one on one; I believe in movement, interchange and being vertical.” That last bit sounds surprisingly similar to how AVB talks about how he likes his teams playing football.
4. Tactical Fit
Under Andres Villas-Boas Chelsea have so far predominantly played a 4-3-3 system, and it would seem most likely that Juan Mata would fit in as the front-left player in that formation, with the ability to switch flanks with his right-sided counterpart. AVB has gone to great lengths discussing and implementing flexibility into his team though, with the squad also often practicing a diamond 4-4-2 to provide a quick mid-match formation change. In fact, against West Brom over the weekend, that is exactly what happened when Malouda replaced the innefective Kalou. In this case, Mata could easily shift from left-winger to #10 playmaker at the top of the diamond.
More so than simply formation changes, Villas-Boas has also worked hard since pre-season to implement a different style of play within this Chelsea squad. Similar to Porto’s style last year, the changes start at the back with a much higher defensive line in place, so as to pressure the opposition in their own half. The goal is to play possession football, similar to Guardiola’s Barcelona in many ways, with quick ground passing the key to unlocking opposition defenses rather than the more aerial threat Chelsea is accustomed to with Drogba leading the line. This helps explain the preferred choice of Fernando Torres up front instead of Drogba thus far in the season, although service has still been lacking for this new system. This is why Mata fits in so perfectly, with not only his creativity bound to help, but also his clever, quick movements sure to create more space for those around him. Chelsea fans will be hopeful that Mata’s vision could be the key to finally getting the best out of Torres.
5. Cultural Fit
A player’s happiness and general mental state are often overlooked for the more obvious on-the-field performances, but time and again we have witnessed great players failing to adapt to a new club and country because of off-the-field reasons. Juan Mata has a head start on the linguistic front, having learned English in school. He also has the advantage of joining fellow Spaniards Fernando Torres and Oriol Romeu. Romeu might be a few years younger, but the two players will be going through similar life experiences at the same time and should help each other adapt.
Manager Villas-Boas is also well known for his close relationship to players, and will surely assist as necessary in ensuring a smooth transition during the culture shock. If two fellow Spaniards don’t provide enough companionship at Chelsea, there are plenty of Portuguese and Brazilian players with more similar cultural philosophies. His sister Paula also happens to live in Brighton, which all adds up to ensuring alienation will be kept to a minimum.