Jose Mourinho has left him out, substituted him and played him on the right wing but yesterday the Chelsea manager was finally explicit that Juan Mata, player of the year at the club for the last two seasons, is firmly behind Oscar in the pecking order as the team’s playmaker.
Chelsea’s new manager issued a detailed and passionate defence of his four-year plan for the club following two consecutive defeats, against Everton and Basel in the Champions League on Wednesday, saying that while “the project is beautiful”, the reality for his side was that “we had two very ugly results”.
Unfortunately for Mata, who played 64 games last season for his club, scoring 20 goals, there is not yet a part for him in that project. The 25-year-old has played just three games this season, only two of them starts, and is yet to complete a full 90 minutes. Mourinho said that he was unable to disclose all the reasons why the player had barely featured, although those reasons are football-related and not personal.
Mourinho said: “The reasons why, in this moment, he’s not playing so much, are things I can speak about with him but not with you. But he played against Everton from the start and you can analyse his performance. And he played against Basel, not like Demba Ba or John Obi Mikel coming in to rescue the game, but he came on when the team was winning 1-0 and had specific tasks to do.
“It’s part of a process with him, too. One option is to play with Ramires and Oscar on the wings, those two closing down each side, and Mata as a No 10 behind a striker. He can offer clever assists, clever passes, fantastic actions, because he has great talent. It’s another thing to adapt to the way we want to play.
“At this moment, Oscar is my No 10 [playmaker] and, if somebody tells me that Oscar has not been Chelsea’s best player this season, I’d have to disagree. These are football issues.”
Put simply, Mourinho said that he could not leave Oscar out “because he plays in that [No 10] position for the country with more talented players there than anywhere in the world”. Neither was he currently prepared to play Oscar wide, he said, in order to accommodate Mata in the centre. “I want to build with Oscar as my No 10. I want the other two players, on the wings, to adapt to that reality and learn how to do things they were not ready to do before.”
Mourinho’s stark analysis of Mata’s position followed a resolute pledge that he would not deviate from the course that he has plotted for Chelsea since he returned to the club in June, even if that meant a fair amount of pain along the way. Thus far, they have not won in four games and have made their worst start to a season in a decade.
“The situation is pure,” Mourinho said. “I don’t like the way Chelsea were playing in the last couple of years. The club doesn’t like it. We want to change. We have the players with the profile to change. We want to play a different style.”
He was not afraid to list what he did not like about Chelsea last season: elimination at the Champions League group stage, a third-place league finish, David Luiz playing in midfield, long balls to a “lonely striker”, Oscar tracking full-backs. He said, though, that this was not a criticism of his predecessor, Rafael Benitez. “Rafa had a different profile of job to me,” he said. “This is not a criticism; he did his job very well.” Instead, Mourinho assessed what he sees as the scale of his task as Chelsea go into a critical game at home to Fulham today. What about him pleading youthful immaturity against Basel despite fielding a team that averaged 27 years and eight months? Mourinho’s answer was that he had played “kids”, like Marco van Ginkel, in key influential positions, out of the way “at full-back”.
Asked whether it was too soon to talk about a “crisis”, Mourinho said: “Crisis of what? Syria? Ah, Chelsea. No, for me, no problems, no crisis. For me, it’s two bad results.” He said he had “never worked so hard in my life” as he was doing now.
The change in Mourinho from his previous time at Chelsea is significant. Last time he put much into cultivating the mystique of the ultra-capable, all-powerful modern coach. This time the back-story is already in place but the task in hand is more difficult – and as a result he is more given to explain his thinking in greater detail.
With Mourinho there will always be a cunning plan unfolding in the background but there is no doubt he is being more open. He conceded that there will be occasions when he will have to park the proverbial bus. “I went to Barcelona with Inter and, for 60 minutes, we played with 10 men,” he said. “If we needed to be there longer, we’d have played for another 60 minutes. But I don’t want my team to play like that.”
There is one Fulham player who will have split loyalties today: Jose junior, Mourinho’s 14-year-old son, and a goalkeeper at Fulham’s academy. “It was a decision that I took, I don’t want him in my club,” Mourinho said. “It was the best decision for him.”
Jose junior’s Fulham team, his proud father said, had just beaten their AIK Stockholm counterparts in a tournament in Madrid, although he wanted his son to be allowed to develop like any teenager. “Leave the kid in peace,” said Mourinho. “He’s just a kid who enjoys football.” There is, however, no such hiding place for his father. And he knows it.
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