Tag Archives: Juan Mata

It’s Chelsea

2 Jan

A belated Merry Christmas to you all.  I trust Santa was suitably generous and got you that Starbucks gift card you’ve always wanted.  And a happy New Year too.  Warmest wishes for 2014 from The English Game.

The first day of the New Year is perhaps the most optimistic of them all.  A day when our outlook for the coming 12 months remains as yet unspoiled.  Daring to dream is still an option.  It was therefore chastening for my New Year optimism to be completely dashed by the stark realisation that Chelsea are going to win the league.

I’ve seen enough.  It’s happening.  Sorry to be the one to tread on your strawberries.  The West Londoners remain priced at a generous 7/2, so you can at least still more than triple your money on this now crushing inevitability.

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It wasn’t three wise men but two sets of festive league fixtures that crystallised what had been a nagging fear for some time.  The first of which was Liverpool’s consecutive games against Manchester City and then Chelsea.  Both scorelines finished identically (Liverpool lost both 2-1) but the manner of the two games was telling…

I spent Christmas at a Premier Inn near Luton.  This isn’t some sort of perverse festive tradition.  Rather, it was necessary for reasons of an expanding wider family and the usual constraints of space and beds that arise as a result.  They say that everything is premier except the price.  And they were right, too.  The room was lovely.  In fact, everything would have been completely fine were it not for the fact that, on arrival, my sister and her husband kindly passed on to me a weapons-grade stomach bug that they had been discretely harbouring.

As a result, I spent Christmas Day itself and Boxing Day in a purple-tinted hotel room with my head nestled deep into a toilet bowl.  I’m as weak as a baby now and still have haunting images of the picture of Lenny Henry on my dressing table guaranteeing me a good night’s sleep.  Believe you me, minor tea-making facilities and a shortbread biscuit provide little by way of comfort in the face of persistent and prompt bodily evacuations. 

In my feverish state, I just about managed to watch the Boxing Day clash of City versus Liverpool, although Lord knows it didn’t help matters.  The second half was almost as perilous for City as my own predicament.  Liverpool were moving through City’s defensive line quicker than the pigs in blankets were moving through me.  In noro virus terms, City’s careless defending was the equivalent of placing the vomit bucket in the diagonally opposite corner of the room to where I lay.  Foolhardy and likely to result in disaster.

This contrasted neatly with the manner in which Chelsea undertook the same task three days later.  The game couldn’t have started any worse for Chelsea, with Martin Skrtel firing Liverpool ahead from close range in under three minutes.  However, Chelsea’s response was urgent and professional.  Mourinho’s men were aggressive without being reckless and immediately asserted a businesslike control of the game.  Within 30 minutes of the initial hoo-ha, Chelsea had established a 2-1 lead and there was a certain accomplished inevitability of the result from that point on.

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The New Year’s Day fixtures provided further evidence to bulwark my sense of premier league foreboding.  Against Swansea, City again proved that if they want to win the league, they’re going to have to blast their way to the title.  At times, there are shades of Newcastle in 1996 about City’s on-pitch demeanour.  In a game they could and should have won easily, the scoreline finished 3-2.  There were full-backs regularly in the opposition penalty area.  Wide midfielders who didn’t provide any cover.  In the middle of the park, only Fernandinho seemed desperately keen to win the ball back when possession was lost.  It was unnecessarily risky stuff and the self-control seemed lacking. 

Chelsea, by comparison, put on another disciplined display against Southampton.  The lead took a while to establish but there was a care to their performance.  If the result was to go against them, it sure as heck wasn’t going to be because Mourinho’s well-drilled team were not following orders.

In short, Chelsea are starting to look rather like winners.  They are developing the aura of a team who not only know that they should win, but that they ought not to give even the impression that some other result is a possibility.  With Manchester City, there is always a feeling that the opposition has a puncher’s chance.  Just enough hubris is exhibited to leave the chin exposed to a lucky right-hander.  City will blow more teams off the park than Chelsea, certainly.  But they will also walk into a few more bear-traps along the way.  Especially when things get tight down the stretch and jangling nerves start to override raw talent.

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It’s turning into goals versus grit for the title this season and usually the latter triumphs.  There seems to be more fight about the Chelsea players.  A little extra in the way of pluck.  I love Ya Ya Toure more than life itself.  And, sure, it’s difficult to stop a man the size of a holiday home travelling at 25 miles an hour.  But he’s not a warrior.  Nor is David Silva. 

I’m also delighted to see Samir Nasri having a great season.  But we saw all we need to know about his resolve when he ducked in the wall against a Robin van Persie free-kick last year.  When you’re looking into a player’s eyes to see who has the fire within them to get the job done, it’s hard to eradicate the pitiful image of Nasri on the end of that wall, cowering like Dennis Bergkamp in a first class lounge. 

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In a close title race, having the best manager in the league is also going to be a huge help.  Mourinho is a winner, plain and simple.  A more irritating winner than he was in his first spell at Chelsea, admittedly.  But a winner nonetheless. Contrast this with the Manchester City helmsman.  In nine long years managing in La Liga, Manuel Pellegrini didn’t win a single thing.  Not a Spanish sausage.  For a manager who can include Real Madrid on his CV, that doesn’t make for good reading.  I’m not saying he’s a bad coach; he isn’t.  However, there is a critical, if subtle, distinction between being a good coach and being a winner; in much the same manner as how playing well and winning are not the same thing either.

I thought Mourinho had made a fatal mistake with the paucity of his strikers this year.  I struggled to see where the goals would come from.  It is quite something that no recognised Chelsea striker scored an away goal in the premier league for the entirety of 2013.  Crucially, though, they do have goals in the team.  Hazard, Oscar, Lampard, Ramires and Schürrle have all played their part in making sure the net ripples on a regular basis.  Chelsea may win the premier league with the least effective strike-force ever to do so but, ultimately, the back of net makes no enquiry as to the identity of the scorer.  If you have three or four midfielders all capable of getting well into double figures, the need for the Number 9 to do likewise diminishes.

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So, there you have it.  Chelsea – premier league winners 2013/14.  Sorry for ruining the ending.  About three minutes in to watching the film Titanic at the cinema, I distinctly remember someone very loudly shouting in from the vestibule “it sinks, he dies”.  I fear I may have just done something similar.  Like a botched surprise party, you’re just going to have to fake your reaction when the time comes.  No spoiling it for Juan Mata if you see him though, please.  It looks like he’s going to be forced to sit through it all as well.   

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button at the bottom-right corner of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

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All the frappuccinos he can drink up to a value of £20 will do little to console Mr Pellegrini.

All the frappuccinos he can drink up to a value of £20 will do little to console Mr Pellegrini.

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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?

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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. 

 

Manchester City v Chelsea, F.A. Cup Semi-Final (14 April, 2013)

21 Apr

The first warm day of the year was also one of the windiest.  A gale-force Manchester City whistled through Chelsea’s bones from the first blow of Chris Foy’s whistle.  Fired up for their only potential trophy of the year, City came out the blocks with the eagerness of an Anti-Thatcher mob poised to dance on the former premier’s grave.  With the Baroness due to be laid to rest later in the week, the other Chelsea pensioners, Lampard, Terry and Cole, were also rested in what history will remember as the Second Biggest Occasion of the Week.

Watching today’s game reminded me how much Andy Townsend sounds like the bald fella from Masterchef.  He’s all heavy vowels and misplaced self-confidence.  And although very little of human endeavour impresses the former Maidstone-borne Irish international, the directness of Ya Ya Toure’s burst towards the Chelsea goal had the colour commentator purring.  Aided by a fortunate deflection, Nasri was able to convert past Cech with all the casual ease of a Justin Bieber entry in the Anne Frank guestbook.

City could have been 2 or 3 goals up by the half were it not for Jamie Milner’s lack of tactility in the final third.  With the goal gaping for City strikers in the box, Milner managed to over hit two consecutive crosses.  His heavy-handed implementation reminiscent of the Poll Tax.  There was also an open goal that the hapless Milner cannoned into King Sergio’s thigh.  A poor day for the Yorkshire water carrier.

The half-time segments of orange provided little respite for the men from West London.  No sooner were they back on the pitch than Aguerro doubled City’s lead.  The lady might not have been for turning, but the Branislav certainly was as Sergio peeled off his man and dispatched the ball into the far corner.  Aguerro’s looping header all but sunk Chelsea’s hopes like a homing torpedo on a fleeing vessel.  A week of double celebration for him and Zabaleta, one suspects.

The hackneyed pre-game narrative was of City’s supposed Achilles’ heel being reserve goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon (who, before today, had conceded precisely zero goals as the Cup keeper).  Even at half-time, ITV persisted with the script that Costel was the weak link that could assist in Chelsea finding a way back in.  Yet despite the best effort of the Chelsea attacks, the beanpole Romanian stood strong.  The bearded chess piece that is Juan Mata continued to pull the strings and create chances, but Pantilimon was the white wizard and nought would pass.

Despite a long period of dominance, the Conservative leaderships of Thatcher and Major eventually yielded to a fresh-faced Tony Blair in ’97.  Benitez, similarly sensing the winds of change, sent on another striker and went for an attack-minded 4-4-2.  The masked Fernando Torres (so attired because of a loose Steaua Bucharest boot breaking his nose in the UEFA Cup) entered the fray on the hour mark.  Of course, the reality for poor Nando is he’s been conceptually wearing a mask ever since his arrival at Stamford Bridge.  However, the effect of his introduction today was immediate.  His diverting run on arrival to the pitch allowed for the Premiership’s best volleyer of a ball, Demba Ba, to crash home a smart finish which hinted at a royal blue revival.  Torres was a menace until the final whistle and, if Chelsea had been the victors, the credit for the revival would have been his.

Football, like politics, has its tense moments, and the climactic 20 minutes made for uncomfortable viewing for City fans.  On form, Chelsea have the best attacking pivot in English football.  So, by sitting back, City proffered a very dangerous invitation to Messrs Oscar, Hazard and Mr Tumnus.  In an effort to shore up victory, Mancini brought on City’s very own anti-Moneyball, the beautiful-yet-useless Javi Garcia.  The man to make way was Carlos Tevez.  Granted, Tevez was not having a vintage game, but breaking up the dream strike pairing of him and Aguerro seemed an odd way to see out a game which had potentially another 50 minutes to play (plus penalties, in which Carlitos would certainly have had a part to play).  City lost their calm retention of the football.  Thankfully, however, one man didn’t yield to the mayhem surrounding him.  Pablo Zabaleta proving once again that, deep down, he’s more British than the rest of us with perfectly timed interception after perfectly timed interception.  At one point even implementing a slide tackle with his head.

Chelsea eventually relented.  With United tramping the dirt down on any challengers to the Premiership title, a cup final against Wigan on May the 11th provides City’s last opportunity for any season-salvaging silverware.

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https://i1.wp.com/www.proprofs.com/games/puzzle/sliding/upload/209984_1263352134.jpg

Juan Mata was a continual thorn in City’s side.