It was no great surprise when Juan Mata appeared to score the game-winning goal for Chelsea against Manchester United on Sunday. It also wasn’t a shock when he didn’t get credit for it.
His 86th-minute effort deflected off United midfielder Phil Jones and nestled into the goal. It was ruled an own-goal for Jones, but the glory went to Mata and Chelsea.
The moment reflected Mata’s fully grown stature — both at Chelsea and in the Premier League. Just when it looked like the tepid meeting between two giants of the English game would cruise to a goalless end, the Spanish playmaker stepped up and decided the contest’s outcome. Less than two years after joining from Valencia, Mata has become the Blues’ most important and influential attacking player and made him self an essential component of the club’s success.
Mata’s progression from expensive import to PFA Player of the Year award finalist is largely due to personal qualities which he successfully applied to his professional life. The 25-year-old enjoys traveling to new places and experiencing different cultures and he knows the importance of adapting to those new surroundings, especially over the long term. The love of exploration helped convince Mata that Chelsea was the right place to develop as a player and a person in the summer of 2011 when he completed a £23.5 million ($36.5 million) transfer.
“When you change country, the language, the city, change your league, change even your style of football — and it’s not the same in England as in Spain — then you are a little but, err, scared in the beginning,” Mata told the Telegraph. “It’s different and you don’t know if you are going to be able to change yourself to adapt. I changed a lot, changed the lot! But I think that sometimes during your career you have to decide to change things to improve. For me, it was a good time to do it.”
Mata married his ability to explore, adapt and integrate with a fierce hunger to improve as a player and win games. This mix guided him to his comfort zone at Chelsea during a turbulent 2011-12 season. He was billed as an exciting winger when he came to first came to Chelsea, and it was club officials — not the request of incoming manager Andre Villas-Boas — who drove the pursuit of his transfer.
When Mata he joined the club, the responsibility for Chelsea’s goal output fell firmly at the feet of club legends Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, while Fernando Torres, Daniel Sturridge, Flourent Malouda and Salomon Kalou were expected to contribute to the tally. Mata the winger was expected to work his way into the rotation gradually, but Mata the man had other ideas. He scored on his Premier League debut and cemented a place in the starting lineup shortly thereafter.
Chelsea fired Villas-Boas in March 2012, replacing him with Roberto di Matteo. Mata flourished under the new manager who moved him from a wide position to a central one with great effect. With Mata scheming behind a lone striker, Chelsea won the FA Cup and Champions League in that magical spring.
Mata was Chelsea’s most-used outfield player last season, making 58 appearances in his maiden voyage in the English game. He earned the trust of teammates and fans in that successful first season, and Chelsea waved goodbye to Drogba and Kalou (and permanently relegated Malouda to the reserves) last summer.
The new season brought new troubles to Chelsea. The Blues started slowly, and di Matteo was fired in November. Rafa Benitez took over, and Mata continued to progress under yet another manager. Benitez deploys Mata in the middle, but he often shifts him to the left or right as game situations dictate. Mata has license to roam, prod and devastate the opposition. He feels at home in this position, as Manchester United learned (not for the first time this season).
“I like to play ‘between the lines [between opponents' midfield and defense],’ it is where I feel most comfortable,” Mata said. “Even when I was playing in the wide areas I didn’t consider myself a pure winger like [Arjen] Robben or [Damien] Duff when they were here.”
Early success earned Mata the trust of his manager(s), teammates and fans. That trust brought him not only plaudits, but also responsibility as Chelsea’s chief architect of goals. Mata bears the burden with an exciting grace, and he responded with 19 goals and 33 assists in 60 appearances this season. His consistent output, durability and dependability have prompted some to compare him to another Chelsea legend, Gianfranco Zola.
Sky Sports reports Benitez recently noted the similarities between Mata and Zola.
“Game intelligence. That is the key,” Benitez said. “He’s very clever, he finds space and his quality is very good. He has the vision. He can score goals, he can pass. That is game intelligence. That’s the reason why these players are more expensive. It’s more difficult to find them.
“Gianfranco Zola was this type of player, not too big but game intelligence to get into the box.”
Mata’s international career should follow an arc similar to that of his club career. He has played 23 games for Spain since 2009. His resume includes FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship titles, although he was a squad player on those all-conquering teams. Spain is approaching a transitional moment, and it will increasingly look to Mata for leadership and goals as the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Villa give way to a new generation of Spanish heroes.
Meanwhile, Chelsea’s victory over United put it in good position to secure a place in next season’s UEFA Champions League. The club is expected to add another superstar to its attacking corps this summer, with names like Hulk, Radamel Falcao and Neymar linked with expensive transfers. Like Mata in summer 2011, whoever comes to Stamford Bridge will have to adapt to culture, style of play and the stars that already reside in West London. The traveling man Mata will certainly be there to offer some useful tips — even before he sets up that first goal.
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