The lion, the witch and the midfielder who doesn’t track back

4 Oct

Industrialist and long-time owner of Juventus, Gianni Agnelli, once caught a young Michel Platini enjoying a crafty cigarette in the dressing room before a game.  “That worries me,” Agnelli said to Platini.  The riposte was instant.  “You only need to worry if he starts smoking,” said Platini, pointing at Massimo Bonini, the tireless midfield ball-winner in that Juventus team.

Younger readers, who know him only as the president of UEFA, may be surprised to hear that, as a player, Platini relied on trickery and cunning rather than hard work and honest endeavour.  “Le Roi” wasn’t the only one, either.  History is riddled with number 10’s who leveraged their undoubted talents in order to get away with the minimum of effort.  Back in the day, you practically had to promise your playmaker time off in lieu in order to cajole the lazy so-and-so into his own half of the pitch.  A football would need to be primed with hors d’oeuvres before Matt Le Tissier even considered putting in a tackle.  One man’s artistry is another man’s lazybones.

The extent to which the modern game can indulge such work-shy fecklessness has been cast into the limelight by the recent goings-on at Stamford Bridge.  Juan Mata was one of football’s outstanding performers last season.  In many people’s eyes, the best midfielder in the English league.  Yet despite being in everyone’s team of the year last time round, Mata can’t even get his own first XI this semester.

The underlying problem

The problem stems from the fact that Jose Mourinho didn’t return to a very Mourinho-like team.  It says a lot about Mourinho’s sustained legacy that he could have taken over any Chelsea side up until 2012 (five years after he left) and he would have slipped back in like a glove[1].  But the arrival of Oscar and Eden Hazard in the summer of 2012 (with Mata already in situ) signalled that a fundamentally different Chelsea side had finally emerged from the Special One’s long shadow.  Chelsea had moved on.

Three attacking midfielders floating care-free behind a centre forward never looked like being part of a Mourinho team.  He could just about cope with one playmaker in the side.  Three of the buggers would be enough to give him kittens.  For an unrepentant pragmatist like Jose, there was always going to be an opportunity cost.

Mourinho teams are built with an iron rod running through the middle.  Players like Lampard, Makelele, Essien, Ballack, Mikel, Costinha, Thiago Motta, Cambiasso, Alonso, Khedira.  All strong.  All aware of their defensive duties.  All team players committed to the cause.  It wasn’t that you weren’t allowed skill.  It was just that you had damn well better work hard in a system before you thought about using it.

Nothing encapsulated the “Mourinho way” quite like the performance of his Inter Milan side in the 2010 ECL semi-final 2nd leg against Barcelona.  Reduced to ten men (unfairly), Inter were the very embodiment of team-work and an “all hands on deck” policy.  Strikers Milito and Eto’o worked their socks off as makeshift wide midfielders, dropping into the second bank of defence against the Catalan onslaught.  Together with Cambiasso and Chivu, they formed a wall on Inter’s defensive third.  Behind them, Walter Samuel and Lucio defended the penalty area as if they were two female elephants protecting their young.  There were no passengers, only warriors. 

Despite losing the game 1-0, it was enough for Inter to progress to the final and arguably remains to be Mourinho’s finest hour.  He is a coach very much wedded to what Brazilians call “futebol de resultados” rather than “futebol d’arte”.  Perhaps we should not be too surprised if there is no room for Mr Tumnus in Mourinho’s Narnia.

Square pegs

As Charles de Gualle once said, the graveyards are full of indispensable footballers who couldn’t fit a formation.

For five years at Old Trafford, Ruud Van Nistelrooy was more lethal than Dignitas.  However, as the team evolved, it became apparent that the need to accommodate his style of play was holding United back.  Ferguson packed him off to Real Madrid and the triple helix of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez went on to win the European Cup.

Glen Hoddle was the nation’s most talented footballer for a generation.  He’s got less England caps than Phil Neville.

For all his excellence going forward, Juan Mata is not an all-round player.  In the very best teams, and Chelsea’s ambitions are to be the very best, attacking midfielders don’t ignore their defensive duties.  Wayne Rooney is never neglectful of his responsibilities when United don’t have the ball.  It was noticeable how much Frank Ribery tirelessly tracked back under Heynckes at the business end of last year’s Champions League run. 

Under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s philosophy was to press high and aim to win the ball back within six seconds of losing it.  This required the whole attacking unit to swarm opponents the moment possession was surrendered.  Juan Mata does not seem to possess the energy levels for high tempo pressing.  Vincente Del Bosque’s no fool, but he never starts Mata for Spain – even in friendlies.

For all their cup success, Mata has been Chelsea’s player of the year in two of their worst seasons domestically for a decade (finishing 6th and 3rd). Winning league titles is the stamp of a great football team and Chelsea haven’t even challenged since he arrived.  Maybe Jose recognises this. 

Let’s not be too hasty in our judgment, though.  Great players achieve their status through humility and a willingness to work on all aspects of their game.  There’s plenty of season left for Mata to prove he can do all aspects of the job required. 

Mourinho isn’t likely to give up quickly on a player who is not only one of the best passers in the league, but also a genuine goal threat.  Mata scored a Lampard-esque 20 goals from midfield in all competitions last year.  That was more than Wayne Rooney.

Smoke and mirrors?

In any case, attacking midfield isn’t the position of concern for Chelsea.  As Too Good has twice tried to bring to Mourinho’s attention, having someone up front to convert their chances is the problem, not creating them.  The inclusion of Mata won’t solve this.  There’s a Chelsea striker who has scored 20 goals in his last 38 league games.  Unfortunately, none of the blue shirts Romelu Lukaku was wearing were embroidered with the Chelsea crest.  Maybe it suits Mourinho to have a bit of misdirection, creating a storm in a teacup around Juan Mata, while leaving the real problem out of focus?

—————————

It would be nice if real football teams worked like their fantasy equivalents and you could just pick whoever you want.  A team of mercurial individuals forged by the brilliance of the man in charge.  But it never works when people try.  Where there’s a conflict in style of play, the manager should always be allowed to win out.  

Teams have to be moulded according to one man’s will.  Ultimately, Mourinho will pay the piper with his job if things go badly, so he should get to call the tune.  If a player can’t, or won’t, fit to the vision, they need to go.  Let’s hope this doesn’t prove to be the case with Mata – he would be a sad loss for both Chelsea and the league in general if it doesn’t work out.

Tummers needs to put a shift in.


[1] Andre Villas-Boas was actually assigned the task of overhauling the “Mourinho side” a year earlier (2011) but never actually achieved it.  He just benched Frank Lampard a lot. 

 

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4 Responses to “The lion, the witch and the midfielder who doesn’t track back”

  1. Oliver Watkins October 6, 2013 at 9:29 pm #

    ‘Fewer’ England caps mate. Unless you mean to imply that England caps awarded to Phil Neville are continuous, like the drops in a bowl of gravy, rather than discrete like chips on a bap.

    Oliver Watkins Head of CRM & Customer Analytics M +61 478 882 238

    >

    • Sonny Pike October 7, 2013 at 9:44 am #

      Ah, crap. I did that in the Ashley Cole article as well. Grammatical blind spot. It’s been touch and go on “its/it’s” a few times too…

  2. Copster October 11, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    Do you think Mata, Oscar and Hazard would make an Ibizan threesome?

    • Anonymous October 13, 2013 at 11:49 pm #

      Ha. I’m sure if you ask Jose Mourinho, he’d say Oscar and Hazard would, and Mata has the potential to but he needs to work harder if he wants to have one.

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