Pitchside

Mourinho experiment backfires as Mata remains superior to Oscar

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The close-season whispers of Jose Mourinho and a dislike for Juan Mata‘s style of play have failed to cease but is his preference for Oscar vindicated?

The decision to omit Juan Mata from Chelsea’s starting line-up has been met with general bemusement around Stamford Bridge this season as the reformed ‘Happy One’ struggles to vindicate his personal preference in the number 10 role.

Mata was Chelsea’s stand-out performer last term, not to mention the one before that, plundering 18 goals and 34 assists in all club competitions. But Mourinho has appeared to snort with derision when grilled about his tendentious idea behind leaving out a proven match-winner and fan favourite.

But leave the Spanish wizard out is he has done and, despite a shaky start, the favoured attacking troika of Eden Hazard and Andre Schurrle, flanking Oscar, have largely merited their selections.

Limping to defeat at Newcastle and securing a scarcely deserved draw with West Brom thanks to some inept officiating late on were prime examples of a Blues side still finding their feet under Mourinho, and they looked bereft of creativity throughout.

One of the principal reasons behind Mata’s continued absence is due to Mourinho’s view that Oscar offers more defensive protection and a willingness to track back from wide areas and a central attacking base.

Andre Schurrle is equally as diligent in both his attacking and defensive duties but to prefer the German to someone as gifted as Mata in the former Bayer Leverkusen’s maiden season creates an added pressure of its own, while Hazard, tipped by many as a prospective player of the year at the start of the campaign, is the luxury wideman Mourinho treats himself to.

Hazard was earmarked as the main man of the Portuguese’ creative armoury, who would be slightly more liberated than the rest and in essence, the regular selection of the Belgian has paid dividends. His 22 chances created is flawless and the fact he has registered just one assist is more indicative of the problems Chelsea have endured in finding a first-choice striking spearhead.

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Both Hazard and Oscar are out in front in the goalscoring battle with four apiece and with both providing one average defensive action to Mata’s none – with Schurrle weighing in with two – the stats begin to stack up in favour of the current midfield artistry on offer.

Then consider this. Oscar, chief in Mourinho’s grand plan, is actually providing Chelsea with less of a creative output. His 14 chances created scores highly amongst the Blues’ ranks, but he finds himself behind Hazard’s stand-out sum, while Ramires and, significantly, Mata both have 15 to their name.

Oscar has made four more appearances than his rival to date and yet finds himself behind in what could be deemed a key aspect in the duel for supremacy and first-team selection in the hole between midfield and attack.

Mata also comes out on top in the average passing accuracy, an area where he actually beats off all competition aside from Jon Obi Mikel (91%) but given the spaces of the pitch which he seeks to capitalise on, the Spaniard’s 89% is unparalleled when in command of the ball.

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Oscar (83%) and Hazard (82%) have clear room for improvement in the area particularly when examining that Schurrle (88%) and relative understudy Willian (88%) post superior numbers.

The Spaniard’s stats are influenced mainly through the lack of game time Mourinho has handed him so his goal return cannot be too harshly judged. It reifies how often he has sat in the stands when he has spent a paltry 382 minutes on the pitch. I’ll do the maths for you, that’s just four games and a bit in the league. How can he be expected to make any sort of goalscoring impact?

It puts into perspective how impressive his passing figures are when he has become something of a super sub in many ways, hurled on when the going gets tough for the Blues.

He has started in five of his seven appearances but has endured a topsy-turvy time within each outing. Having been left on the bench for the season opener against Hull, where Oscar struck the opener, Mata was slightly inhibited when handed a chance against Aston Villa. His mood will not have been improved by Oscar and Hazard linking up neatly for the opener.

But as the early season fixtures have wore on, it seems to have been one of Mata or Oscar to get the nod. The latter actually replaced the former in two of those, in defeat to Everton and against Cardiff, when the replacement would gazump the man who started with a ferocious strike for Chelsea’s fourth in a comprehensive win.

Mata’s relegation to the bench also spurred Chelsea on to three points at Carrow Road, as Hazard and Willian, who replaced the again ineffectual World Cup winner, both struck late on. But these were spectacular circumstances.

Hazard’s goal was as much fortune as through his skill in engineering the chance as John Ruddy allowed the ball to roll under him. Willian’s strike owed more to some Samba expertise as he whipped the ball into the top corner. It wasn’t Mata’s fault.

Nonetheless, a negative trend has started to emerge in accordance with the Spaniard’s presence, one which seems remarkably inequitable. It must be noted, for instance, that Mata was the instigator behind a much-improved second-half performance at Tottenham.

Trailing to Gylfi Sigurdsson’s first-half strike, the way in which Mata was catapulted into proceedings for the downtempo Jon Obi Mikel seemed an admission on Mourinho’s part that he had got it all wrong.

He had, Chelsea were a shadow of their usual selves in the opening half and Spurs failed to properly capitalise in not extending their one-goal lead. Mata supplied the ammunition for his side’s equaliser, looping a devilish ball into the area from half-way inside Spurs’ territory to find John Terry unmarked. He duly headed home.

It is Mata’s sole assist of what has been an unremarkable season, at least by his own top-level standards, but it demonstrated potential matchwinning quality and a killer instinct, something so sorely lacking from a team held to be a Mourinho-lite equivalent when discussed in the same context as his previous squads.

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And it has perhaps been in the manager’s thinking when building his teams for the big matches this season, that Mata has failed to feature.

The lowest ebb of all surely had to be at Old Trafford in the bore draw at United when Mourinho chose to field Schurrle as a false nine type with Kevin de Bruyne, who the Portuguese has since admitted is not up to the expected quality, called upon ahead of Mata. That must have hurt.

Further rejections against Tottenham until his match-saving contribution and Manchester City epitomise a reluctance on the manager’s part and has only served to fuel rumours that emerged but were then instantly discarded during the summer months of Mourinho not being overly keen on the fan-favourite.

The Mata-Oscar-Hazard amalgam Chelsea fans drooled over but, at the very least, certainly envisaged becoming a fixture in this side has actually become a problem and one of Mourinho’s own making.

A position where Chelsea are blessed has proven to be the overshadowing narrative at Stamford Bridge so far this year and the fact that combination has only been tried out twice so far – with mixed results in the win against Villa and defeat at St James’s Park – means there is only room for one of Mata or Oscar in Mourinho’s mind.

While Oscar is tremendously gifted and a star in the making, patience must be urged; the situation has airs of a sorcerer’s apprentice outgrowing his master too quickly. After all, there is a reason Mata was crowned Chelsea’s Player of the Year twice in as many years since his arrival to SW6.

Mourinho must place credence in Mata’s abilities and do something he has never gone on record before as doing – admitting he got it badly wrong – if he is to reap the benefits from his latest project at Chelsea.

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