It was presented as an amicable divorce, the ultimate separation on good terms with an equitable settlement and mutual best wishes for the future. Jose Mourinho even went as far as to say that he wished Juan Mata well at Manchester United, as Chelsea fans reluctantly consign their devotion to their bewitching little Spanish No 10 to the past.
Mourinho has been many things over the years: an agent provocateur, a bluffer, a wind-up merchant and he knows how to spin a tale. But this time he was not focusing on Arsène Wenger – although there was a bit of that – or putting pressure on a referee; this time he was trying to convince Chelsea supporters of the wisdom of the most unpopular decision of both his stints as manager of the club.
This is, after all, Mata, the man who won Champions League and Europa League winner’s medals in his first two seasons at the club; a footballer capable of playing more consecutive games than many of his peers could manage on an Xbox. He takes with him those quick feet, that unerring eye for a crucial goal and that stubborn unwillingness to track back that Mourinho found so hard to accept.
Faced with explaining his decision, Mourinho decided that it was best everyone was honest. Out of the Chelsea side since the turn of the year, he said that Mata could go to Old Trafford because he “deserves respect, he deserves to be happy and to play where he wants to play”. He did not want to insist Mata be packed off to “Russia or China” just to deny him to Premier League rivals. He accepted that Mata was “affected, disappointed, frustrated” by his position at Chelsea.
Mourinho has previously regarded any unwillingness in a player to conform to his team ethic as a kind of betrayal. Mata, he said, has earned the right at Chelsea to be regarded differently. “He was fantastic for Chelsea and Chelsea was fantastic for him,” Mourinho. “We are not afraid of him going. We want him to go there and be happy to do very well for United.”
If that makes Chelsea fans gasp, then consider that Mourinho was presenting Chelsea as being the bigger club in this transfer axis, the “special club” as he put it. That meant that before long he was back on the subject of Wayne Rooney, the man he says he cannot talk about. “To say, ‘You cannot go now, Juan, because United refused to sell us Wayne Rooney in the summer’, that’s not the way for us to act.”
Asked later whether he thought the Mata transfer might smooth the way for Rooney to come in the summer, Mourinho answered with his customary reluctance to discuss the player while doing exactly that. “I don’t think so [that it will change anything concerning Rooney]. But I don’t speak about Rooney. He’s a Man United player. But I don’t think so.”
Whatever one feels about the rationale behind selling Mata, one could hardly argue that Mourinho was running away from the issue. Ahead of tomorrow’s FA Cup fourth-round tie against Stoke City he spoke for more than an hour at the club’s Cobham training base, tackling the issue from every conceivable angle. And that was before he got to grips with the allegations of anti-Semitism against Mohamed Salah, Mata’s likely replacement in the squad.
There was a different attitude evident in the manner in which Mourinho described the collegiate decision by the club to sell Mata, weighing the effect on the squad against the benefits in terms of the financial fair play margins. It is hard to imagine the Mourinho of 2004-2007 being quite so prepared to listen to the perspective of the commercial department as he says he is now.
“This situation was discussed by a group of persons ... that group of people had different philosophies but a common interest: what is best for Chelsea? Those from the economic department don’t have the same needs as me, a football man, but we decided that for all these reasons – and the human one, that Juan desired to go – we did well.
“The owner [Roman Abramovich] is the owner. He’s the boss. I belong to the board, but the board is the board. So I come after. I give opinions. I justify my opinions.
“I try always to do things properly and try to justify because I want to be committed with my opinions. Everything is done properly, but the board is the board and the owner is the owner.”
It was, said Mourinho, a case of “prioritising the evolution of the team”. Even though the January signings Nemanja Matic and, potentially, Salah will not be available for the Champions League this season, Chelsea were building for the long-term. “We want to complete the puzzle in the next summer or two transfer windows’ time,” Mourinho said. “We don’t want to complete the puzzle in five windows, in December 2018.”
As for Salah, Mourinho said that the player had been under pressure last year not to shake hands with Maccabi Tel Aviv players before a Champions League qualifier. “He tried to find some balance [in avoiding rather than refusing] – not enough for us, obviously, but no problems [with Salah] at this club. We know which owner [who is Jewish] we have and the variety of players we have. This is a fantastic club to support a young boy to grow up and be strong.”
Old habits die hard, and Mourinho could not resist a dig at Wenger for his criticism of the Mata sale to United. But in every other aspect you could only acknowledge that, seven months into his return, he is keeping to his promise to play the diplomat. For the time being at least.