Juan Mata is not the first footballer to study for a degree while playing for Chelsea. Graeme Le Saux started a course in sociology and environmental studies at what was then Kingston Polytechnic when he joined the club in 1987. Le Saux, who also took evening classes in antiques, never quite fitted in during his first spell at Stamford Bridge. He wrote later that he was regarded "as an over-earnest young swot", felt "isolated", and a "whipping boy". He added that players who have been educated academically often had such problems.
A dressing room can still be a hard place, and Le Saux's observation that footballers are "insular" remains true to an extent, but the game has moved on, and so have Chelsea. English voices remain the dominant ones in the dressing room, and Mata's studying is rare enough for one reporter to tell him yesterday he "was quite intelligent for a footballer", but in the wake of Glenn Hoddle and Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola, an interest in education no longer makes a player the "easy target" Le Saux felt he was.
Indeed, in modern football intelligence is an advantage. Mata, who embarked on a sports science degree in his native Spain, and is now doing a long-distance course in physical education and marketing from the University of Madrid, proved smart enough in his first official press conference yesterday to negotiate all the traps with aplomb. He swerved past several attempts to draw him into a discussion about Fernando Torres's lack of goals, he avoided besmirching English footballers by comparison with Spanish ones, and dead-batted queries about his relationship with Fabio Capello at Real Madrid. He spoke in Spanish, but did not need questions translated.
"I don't think football and studying are mutually exclusive," he said. "I am focused on my career but like to enjoy other things, like study for example." It is certainly a change from footballers' more traditional leisure pursuits – the pub, the bookies and the golf course. In this respect Mata recalls the days of another nimble Chelsea winger with quick feet and an inquiring mind, Pat Nevin.
On the pitch this intelligence will also be valuable to Andre Villas-Boas's attempts to remodel Chelsea upon what Mata suggested would be more dynamic lines. "We spoke during the negotiation process and that filled me with confidence in his ideas," said Mata of the manager. "We talked about the different styles that could be used. He's in favour of an offensive and dynamic style of football. He showed that at Porto where he won so many trophies last season."
Torres, he said, had encouraged him to join Chelsea, saying "it would be excellent for me to come to a bigger team, with excellent players". Of Torres's goal shortage, he said: "It's just a question of time. He's a great player who has demonstrated he can score lot of goals. Everybody goes through phases but this will be his season. I believe Fernando is still the same player [he was]. He had a great game against Leverkusen [on Tuesday] and contributing a great deal to Chelsea as their striker."
Mata said of his own best position, "I'm not a pure winger. I like being an offensive midfielder and can play in different positions. I have no preference left or right and can play both sides and in the middle. I like to be between the lines."
Mata went on to say his inspiration as a youngster was a player he could be facing at Old Trafford on Sunday, one who also began as a winger before displaying similar attacking versatility. "I always paid close attention to Ryan Giggs because he played in the same position as me. I think he showed what he's worth with his goal [at Benfica]. He's one of the best wingers there has been. He's incredibly impressive with tackling, dribbling and general style."
Mata was not the only family member watching Manchester United matches. He revealed his sister Paula, who has recently returned to Spain after a spell working in Brighton, admired a different United wide player, one who Mata occasionally shared a squad with at Real Madrid.
"My sister liked David Beckham. When we were both at Madrid I went to some Champions League games with the first team. I asked for his shirt for my sister and he gave it to me."
Mata, now 23, joined Real Madrid at 15 but only played for the B team, Castilla. As his 19th birthday approached his father and agent, a former player with Real Oviedo also called Juan, suggested Madrid should offer him a contract as other clubs were interested. Madrid, then coached by Capello, demurred and Mata joined Valencia. "Did Capello not give Mata a chance?" he was asked. Again the careful reply: "I was young then. My contract ended and I went to Valencia. I didn't have much of opportunity to interact with Capello."
It may not have been Capello's say. He would soon be fired while sporting director Predrag Mijatovic was signing another winger, Royston Drenthe (now on loan to Everton). Whoever made the call made a mistake. Real's share of the £23.5m Chelsea paid Valencia last month was just £460,000.