As the team sheets for the much awaited Manchester United-Chelsea game came out earlier this season, the Chelsea side that Mourinho put out made two subtle statements. With no recognized forward in the side and a fluid front three of Schuerrle, Hazard and De Bruyne, it looked like an advertisement for Wayne Rooney, for the vacant spot of a deep lying centre forward (Or False 9) in the side. The second, was the exclusion of Juan Mata from the encounter. Never did any Chelsea fan envision back then that the move would have more serious, permanent implications.
Had anyone said anything about selling Juan Mata at the end of last season, Chelsea fans would have screamed bloody murder. Player of the Year at Chelsea twice in a row in the last two seasons, the former Valencia man had easily been one of the best at Stamford Bridge. Ingenious and imaginative, Mata provided example after example of a devastatingly polished craft of creating opportunities out of nothing. He had even proclaimed his undying love for the club, and his performances had endeared him to the Blues faithful, all in all it looked a match made in footballing heaven.
Enter Jose Mourinho, and the beautiful marriage slowly and surely, seemed to be on the rocks. It was evident that Mata was not Mourinho’s type of player. The Portuguese manager preferred industry over ingenuity, and Mata’s inadequate defensive contribution went against him. The home encounter against Tottenham seemed to be a turning point in Juan’s fortunes, as Mata assisted Terry’s goal and made 7 tackles in 45 minutes of football. But other than that lone instance, Mata tried too hard to impress Mourinho, and tried too little to play to his strengths.
It wasn’t entirely Mata’s fault though. With a manager like Jose Mourinho, it was inconceivable that there was no vision, and Chelsea’s signings in the summer clearly indicated how he intended to build his side. Andre Schuerrle was brought in, a left winger who could feature on the right and also as a second forward. Willian was signed from Anzi Makhachkala, the Brazilian was comfortable across the three attacking midfielder’s slots. Kevin De Bruyne was also recalled from loan, the Belgian adept at playing on the right side of attack or as a wide midfielder. Christian Atsu, who could ply his trade anywhere on the left side of the pitch was also signed. In essence, versatile wide players and wingers were welcomed with open arms, players who could interchange positions when the opportunity arose. Mourinho’s ideology was all too explicit now- the 4-2-3-1 would slowly make a transition to a 4-3-3, something Jose had preferred since his earlier spell in charge at Chelsea. Considering the 4-3-3 would have no place for a central attacking midfielder, the agenda with Mata was clear- perform in wide positions, or perish. Oscar’s positional familiarity as a central midfielder meant Jose persisted consistently with him in the middle, although Willian would occasionally drift inside to run at defenders.
In the course of the season, attacking transitions showed glimpses of what Chelsea’s 4-3-3 had to offer. Hazard and Willian often dropped deeper to help defend, and a short pass allowed them to dribble from deep to initiate lightning breaks. The variety in the wing play offered multiple combinations, Hazard’s wing wizardry often brought full backs onto their weaker side, Willian stretched play by getting to the byline. Schuerrle offered different things on both wings, playing as a conventional winger on the right and as an inside forward on the left. Clearly, Mata did not fit into the scheme of things, being a player who preferred the centre. With the World Cup fast approaching, a departure was imminent, but the question was where would he go, and who would replace him?
As Manchester United came calling to help rejuvenate their disastrous season, Mourinho spotted an opportunity that offered various positives. Having played against United twice in the premier league, the sale would be of little direct consequence. On the contrary, it would allow United a better chance at taking vital points off other sides that were contesting one of the hottest Premier League campaigns in recent memory. Furthermore, the sale would clear a significant amount on the wage bill (which became even more relevant considering he wasn’t even a key player anymore) which was of prime importance considering the Financial Fairplay Regulations. Having made a cool 10 million GBP profit on Kevin De Bruyne’s sale, United’s bid would mean another profit of nearly 15 million GBP (comparing the selling and buying prices), meaning a sum total of making a 25 million profit made by selling bench players. The question of the potential replacement was answered the very same day, as an agreement with Basel’s Egyptian international Mohammed Salah was reached (Yes, you guessed it, he can also play across the three attacking midfield slots.) And at 21, the deal offered Chelsea not just a player for the future, but also someone who further reinforced Mourinho’s decision to bring in a 4-3-3 to Stamford Bridge.
Hence, the decision to sell Juan Mata might not be as bad as it first seems. With a form guide that reads six wins in the last six, all without Juan in the side, does indicate that his absence might not be as overwhelming as the emotional response that accompanied his departure. Jose Mourinho, by the looks of it, has a definite idea about the philosophy he wants to imbibe in his players. And with Mata’s sale and Matic and Salah’s arrivals, it does look like Chelsea is one step closer to adapting the 4-3-3.