Mataphysics of a relationship

Confortably sitting in an armchair since his arrival at the club, Juan Mata has seen his status be challenged by José Mourinho in the implementation of a more long-termist gameplan than Roberto Di Matteo’s or Rafael Benitez, while taking on more solid foundations that André Villas Boas’ “project”. Twice elected best player of a club that ended the last two seasons 25 and 14 points off the champion, the diminutive Spaniard was at crossroads between his limitations and his club’s newfould ambitions. After six months of speculation about his manager’s choices and the interest of other top European clubs Mata eventually asked to join Manchester United.

This is an article I initially wrote in French for a blog called Les Dé-Managers hosted on Les Cahiers du Football, for which I got a nice feedback from Philippe Auclair.


Juan Mata is definitely a fantastic player as much as he’s unique. Thus, it’s difficult to label his style of play: wide playmaker? Support striker? central winger¹? For two and a half seasons, Mata flew over in London, visiting museums or reading Bukowski when he was not dropping the ball onto his potted attackers’ feet. Not less than 55 assists in three seasons in all competitions came garnish his stat sheet (35 for the sole 2012/ 2013 season).


The Special Juan is not to fall into the category of old school playmakers, as illustrated by his tendency to pick a pass straight to his forwards; thus unbalancing defences by a single pass. More troublesome, however, Mata has regularly found himself in trouble when pressurized by his warders in the past two seasons – and often lost the ball back to the goal at the benefit of illustrious strangers of the game. Therefore, it did put further enhance on his habit to drift toward “pockets of space” in order to get away from his direct opponent.

Yet, if those first touches sideways or backwards toward such interstices typically allow opponents to get back in shape (or close Mata down), it did paradoxically not prevent the Spaniardto pick a team mate with pinpoint accuracy even in a more densified space. But getting away from the close line of pressure, it did automatically isolate him from the team-mate he passed the ball to, leaving him waiting for support.

Terms and conditions: Mata finds a free space – which does not seem to be threatening to Arsenal. Gets closed down so plays a first touch backwards to get away, then chips a pass straight to Frank Lampard’s run. Little to be said on a purely technical point of view, but this has created constraints on the broad picture.


These two points provide insight on why the most conservative Silva it is preferred in Spain’s defensive possession game. Oscar and Willian’s establishment at his expense since the beginning of the season reflects a desire to feature a “hub” in the three main attacking areas,  capable of receiving the ball – and not being turnover-prone – in every situation. Mata’s range of movements falls more on the laterality – and cut in two parts in some extent the attacking structure (if the balls do not come to him, he can’t drop to get it). Conversely, Oscar’s expansive movements enhance permutations and “rotations” in Chelsea’s midfield three.

Eden Hazard’s wide role drags the attacking focal point wide ; which reinforces the central player’s duty : then it is a genuine need for the to feed the players able to get attacks moving further – and not being the one only catalyzing its anymore. Having gained momentum in December, Willian also displays an ability that Mata does not possess, which is to pin the team block when it re-balances with or without the ball. The Brazilian can hold the ball in the attacking half (-barely losing it) or provide astute angles to his two central midfielders. Moreover, his extended role wide right of the midfield allows one of them to burst forwards without releasing a huge gap in that part of the field (somewhat reminiscent of Ramires’ role when deployed on the right in big games).

Map of the passes received by Juan Mata (2-0 win against West Ham, 03.17.2013) and Oscar (2-1 win against Aston Villa , 08.21.2013). The Spaniard receives the ball deeper than Oscar, usually in gaps between opposing midfielders, or drifts wide in order to link-up in the half-space on the right. Meanwhile, the Brazilian is feeded in direct contact with the opponent’s last line or gets into midfield to fluidize the preparation of attacks. (via StatsZone)

Juan Mata has been involved in only three of the first six league games this season (considering he also carried an ongoing injury from earlier the Confederations Cup). It is possible that this time has been put into profit to try to get on level with the new demands of Mourinho’s more athletic gameplan. That gameplan is based on a high-intensity pressing up the pitch in order to recover the ball as quickly as possible and create a chance within too much passes, as I got in depth on earlier here.

A set up which establish itself in contradiction with the wobbly sharing of duties in use during the last two seasons. It was indeed common to see Luiz or Ramires sweeping a lot of ground in behind the attackers; until interim manager Rafa Benitez sacrified two attackers in structural tasks at the benefit of Mata. A distorting lens which should be taken into account, Mourinho remarked in September, pointing to the impossible comparison between a “number 10 and a player who chases the full back for 90 minutes” about Mata and Oscar .

mata non pressing evra
2012-2013: Half hearted pressing by Mata while Chelsea is walked on by Manchester United at Stamford Bridge despite Mata scoring and assisting once (2-3)
pressing 2
2013-2014: Mata presses then dispossess Luke Shaw before trying to counter-attack, eventually gets fouled.

Juan Mata’s accomplished performances in all phases of the game in December explain why the Spaniard started nine out of the last fourteen fixtures until he went off at St Mary’s Stadium for his last Chelsea appearance. Not without giving the same sort of impression of strength on his feet that Florent Malouda used to display after a few months to adapt to the intensity of duels in Britain.

sous pression
Mata keeps hold of the ball between three Southampton players and releases the ball forwards.

Mata’s reduced playing time this season was only the corollary of a more reasonable use by José Mourinho, in order to exploit at its best the qualities of the former Valencia man and no longer rely on his weekly pieces of brilliance to hide the poorness of his team’s attacking play.

The trycicle and the steamroller

However, the Spaniard did no longer appear as a first choice anymore as Mourinho wants his team put intensity to oppose to his opponent. Even worse, Mata had to make room for Oscar shortly after the break at Southampton. The latter, along with Willian was behind the impressive last half hour of the Blues who scored 3 goals. If Mata is always a perfect can-opener against teams set up in “double decker” formation at Stamford Bridge, he made quite regularly and inspite of himself magic tricks of another kind disappearing when visiting the likes of Brittania Stadium or St James’ Park.

The Iberian is simply paying the price for his athletic limitations, whether to get his body effectively between his opponent and the ball or reiterate runs.

pressing 1
2013-2014: Mata has to chase his full back as Chelsea confortably wins against Premier League sensation Southampton FC (3-1).

That, especially since he is one of those hyper-decisive players at any time of the game, even with measured impact in open play outside the final third. Those aspects had not hindered André Villas Boas or Rafael Benitez when giving him more or less consciously a free role in their set up, though. Two managers knowingly or not dragged into the spiral of immediate results, waiting for Mata to deliver until the last minute of each game twice a week ³. A “fatigue” parameter too often overlooked or hidden by the Spaniard’ stats sheet, although the latter did only portray half of the painting.

Until he eventually left, Mata’s position was obstructed by the trust in Oscar centrally as well as the tenure of a “shutter” on the right side. This role in the Angel Di Maria bloodline in Mourinho’s Real Madrid allows to balance through asymmetry in a team only two points from the leader in the League.

Deconstructing beliefs: a few thoughts

On Chelsea matters

  • Mata’s limitations were always going to be an issue at some point, to establish himself in a pro-active team (ie: relying on high intensity pressing and ball retention) chasing for the title. Borussia Dortmund got into the CL final relying on a tight block and a team pressing as a whole ; beating for the anecdote Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid.
  • Mata obviously tried to adapt to Mourinho’s demands but found himself into a situation where he still couldn’t reach what was expected of him. Every player has his limitations, despite the fact that the player in question here adapted brillantly in terms of movements as (myself or) Jamie Adams pointed at.
  • Still we can reasonably wonder what would’ve happened had Mata not been thrown into the lions cage straight from his arrival at Chelsea, regardless of how good he did. That seems a strange assessement yet only reflects the short-term constraints all of Andre Villas Boas, Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez quickly got dragged into. Mata simply never had time to work on strength or get a proper rest.
  • Mata’s role this season (third most used attacker, substitued toward the 70mn-mark) is the role he *should* always have had at in a title-chasing team, was the London club able to display a full squad and not just a starting eleven as it’s been the case until last summer.
  • Mata is and will stay a class act on and off the field even if he’s the first Chelsea player to join Manchester United since Ray Wilkins in 1979, as this goodbye letter on his blog reads.

On Spain matters

    • Mata being *frozen out* at Chelsea as portrayed by the press is not even close to the situation Juan Mata actually is in with the Spain’s national team.
    • Juan Mata has been involved in 20 of the 38 matchs Spain played since his arrival at Chelsea, only starting 11 of them.
    • Mata never got picked when Silva was available, despite Mata displaying assets Silva can’t boast about such as crossing or scoring goals. But Silva never gets dispossessed and works hard off the ball (commiting a lot of fouls in the process)
    • Spain’s game relies on pressing to keep the ball as as a defensive tactic.
      • Mata has issues to press, athletically, and as well as a tactically until this season (which was surprising for a Spaniard player)
      • Mata’s game relies on taking risks. As it’s a brilliant asset in isolation, it’s not suited to Spain’s gameplan. This is something he can’t be blamed for.
      • Mata isn’t strong to shield the ball, basically gets away from challenges and looks for free spaces rather than pinning opponents.
    • Spain lost the Confederations Cup final against Brazil with a front three of Mata, Torres and Pedro ; unable to keep the ball. Brazil featured Neymar and Oscar who did comfirm their ability to work hard off the ball and keep hold of it

On MU matters

  • That’s an astute move for David Moyes as he’s just starting to add players to his squad. Mata is an hyper decisive player who is likely to get close to double figures in terms of goals and assists in toward the end of the season. That’s what Manchester United need most as trying to outscore opponents will get them more points than defensive solidity.
  • It’ll be interesting to see Mata’s use by David Moyes. The former Everton manager used to push creative players wide, such as Pienaar or Arteta even if both of them could do a fairly good job centrally on the ball.
  • Adnan Januzaj is the definition of a final third player. As much as his movements, propensity to link up play are an asset ; he leaves his overlapping full back exposed.
  • Manchester United is walked on in midfield week and week out as the numerical inferiority (3v2) is the traduction of players in fundamental inability to cover as well central and wide areas. Darren Fletcher holds the key to partly resolve that matter, which can also be sorted through Moyes bringing in another midfielder (Guarin ?).
  • MU can field both Mata and Januzaj (right, left) but surely need to add one more player in midfield. That’s conceivable with an all-round forward like Welbeck while both Rooney and Van Persie are injured. But that will prove to be an issue when both stars will be in contention for starting places.
  • Mata finds himself in a team chasing for the top 4 places. This is not impossible to imagine Mata encounter the same sort of situation do MU become again a genuine title contender in the next 20 months
  • As Chelsea appear as the most equipped title contender, it’ll be hard to blame Mourinho for the decision to sell Mata (which he didn’t accelerated) if Chelsea end up champions and Mata walks on water 10 or 15 points behind Chelsea.

Sébastien Chapuis (@SeBlueLion)


¹ Michael Cox (author of tactics chronicles Zonal Marking or Guardian) provides a definition of ‘ central winger ” which reads in part :” Instead of standing in line and find space between the lines, they excentrent and are combined in the hallways. “

² By cutting the width of the field in four, which corresponds to the distribution of defensive zones in classic 442 shape; half- spaces are located on the border between two zones. Specifically , they are near the angles of the box. In practics, it means searching advantage of the adjustment time required for two opponents at the same distance (full back, midfielder) to pass the marking instructions. See this article Adin Osmanbasic .

³ Oriol Romeu and Fernando Torres’ close mate has played 43 matches in 2010 /2011, 52 in 2011/ 2012 and 64 during the previous year in three seasons punctuated by his participation in the U21 Euro 2011 Euro 2012 the 2012 Olympics and the FIFA Confederations Cup 2013.


A couple of pieces to read


7 thoughts on “Mataphysics of a relationship

  1. Your thoughts and the overall content of this article are insightful and well-founded as usual, but I really feel this article could be done even greater justice by some English editing.

      1. Absolutely! It isn’t mind either and when reading I can sometimes tell what you were trying to say in French (my language is in the same language group as French). Your English in general is great, I also follow you on Twitter.

        I just feel this article is so so good that if it went through an additional editing process, it would not look out of place in any reputable newspaper or football publication. Your ideas and logic is great, it’s just missing that polish to convey all of your ideas from your mother tongue. It is in no means meant as a slight or knock on you.

  2. Fantastic article and great read. Exactly my thoughts on Mata’s weaknesses and ultimate downfall this season at Chelsea. It was never going to work out with Jose and his demands from his attacking players. I’ve always seen that Mata has been the weakest defensively in the team, and this was clear when Chelsea faced Man City in the FA cup semi final last season. But you’ve written what a lot of fans like me have been thinking without the sentiment attached to the player. It’s sad to see him leave Chelsea, but I think it was best for him to move on. It was just never going to work with Mourinho.

    1. I would’ve been very proud of a player like Mata if I chose the approach to see the game as a fan. But it’s not the case, I’m a youth coach and I try to have a different look at things

      At a very different scale of course, a player like Mata also gives a coach the will to improve the aspects that could make him an even better player.

      Mata’s team mates have received an unnecessary amount of blame for issues they weren’t responsible of, such as how exposed they were considering the lack of impact of the attackers off the ball, or their inability to keep the ball properly (resulting in it being lost too early in the build up)

      1. I completely agree, and I think no one has really analyzed Mata’s role or the other forward players from a different perspective. Chelsea has struggled in the past two seasons to make top four, and it seems Mourinho saw the team’s foundation had to be rebuilt. While one can’t blame Mata for Chelsea’s struggles in the last two seasons as he was fantastic, I think the managers being under so much pressure at Chelsea failed in really improving the squad. The team was just built around Mata and he did what he could, score and assist while the team as a whole remained average. Nobody challenged the attacking players like Mourinho did to work on defending.

        Mata is a wonderful player indeed but this weakness in the defensive part of his game is a big problem. I suspect that is the reason he is not a regular starter in the Spanish national team too. With the form Hazard, Oscar and Willian have shown, it’s hard to fault the manager as much as it hurts the fans.

        Also I agree with the last comment about editing. This article is so good that it deserves much wider publication. So far in the English media, every article is sensationalized pointing out how Mourinho was crazy to keep Mata on the bench. You have written a very fair and balanced piece I think.

  3. Ah OK. I was a bit disappointed at the idea to lose in terms of style considering I tried to write something nice to read this time (see the url on top). Not something scholar like I think I was more used to write.

    The issue with using someone to translate is that I would’ve more issues to explain what I want to mean than I would have to write down the idea myself.

    But thanks to the feedback which is appreciated. Out of interest, what’s your username on twitter ?

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