Celebrating Juan Mata at Chelsea: Part creator, part cold-blooded killer
Juan Mata’s journey at Manchester United has made it easy to forget just how good he was in a Chelsea shirt.
It’s easy to look at Mata as little more than an old family pet, the dog you cherished since it was a puppy and which you keep around for the smile it puts on everyone’s face.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. In these desperate times, we all need a friendly constant, but with each passing year as part of the furniture at Old Trafford his past as a cold-blooded killer at Chelsea moves that bit further away.
When you consider how tumultuous things were at Chelsea at various points in Mata’s spell there, his ability to get any sort of momentum going is nothing short of a miracle.
His three-and-a-half years saw four men in charge at Stamford Bridge – André Villas-Boas, Roberto di Matteo, Rafa Benitez and José Mourinho – and yet he survived a bloated squad to win back-to-back Player of the Year awards.
Part of this was due to consistency, but that’s not to say there weren’t a couple of stand-out displays where he showed a level of ruthlessness which hearkens back to a time when a creative Spanish player was an exotic luxury in the Premier League.
Mata seemed to enjoy playing against some opponents more than others, and Norwich fall into the former camp.
Manchester United was one, ironically, with a volleyed blast and a curling free-kick among the highlights of his displays against the Red Devils, but there was even more variety in how he put the Canaries to the sword.
There was a Boxing Day belter to win at Carrow Road, not to mention the stoppage time strike just days after signing for Chelsea from Valencia, but Mata’s most devastating contribution came in a different game against the East Anglian team.
Mata’s name translates [very] loosely as Johnny Kills, and there was something almost matter-of-fact about how he laid on Eden Hazard’s goal, very much in keeping with the noiresque alias.
Indeed, watching goals like this, towards the end of Di Matteo’s reign, serve to let our imaginations run free while considering what more seasons of Mata and Hazard in tandem might have provided, and reminding us of how badly the Italian manager screwed things up in his Champions League defence.
As Mata takes the ball forward following a Norwich attack the defenders drop deep and stand off in the expectation this will make it harder for him to pick the lock. They couldn’t be more wrong.
In finding the one patch of space to feed his team-mate, his actions are akin to stealing a stranger’s wallet while reasoning with them to explain why such a thing would be impossible. Essentially, he’s flushing Norwich’s head down its own toilet after being invited into the house without even knocking.
Naturally, it didn’t end there. In the second half, with the game already effectively won, Mata went one better.
Some players need to take a couple of touches before laying on an assist. Others only need a single touch, provided they’ve adjusted their body first. Mata needs none of this.
When you’re Juan Mata, you can stand in one spot, stick out a leg, and let the ball do the rest of the work for you.
Is it a backheel? Is it a flick? It’s neither.
Take your mate from 5-a-side who’s too lazy to move, but make it fashion.
The Juan Mata we see today still has elements of the man we first saw in blue, not least in the assist he provided for Chris Smalling much earlier in his Manchester United spell.
He has often given the impression of a man who is too good to waste his talents on football, to the point where everything great he does seems like a special treat for those watching.
Each time he produces something like this, it’s as if he’s mentally deciding we’ve been patient long enough, and deciding to throw us a cookie.
For a while, now, it has felt as though Mata has been an afterthought in any discussion of Manchester United’s squad, in between those pushing to leave and those the club has been able to offload.
The moments of class are less frequent, even compared to his first few months at the club, but the Spaniard’s overall presence has long been enough to allow him to just keep on doing his own thing, with a general sense that you can never get too angry at someone whose mere presence is enough to put a smile on your face.
What’s more, he’s not in the same dilemma as other 31-year-olds. He doesn’t have pace to lose or a regular starting spot to free up, and yet the vision of his younger days remains.
Indeed, such a calm, unflappable lock-picker is exactly the sort of thing needed by, you guessed it, Chelsea.