Chelsea Cult Heroes: Juan Mata – Spanish Magician

Introduction

Sublime. Effortless. Unbeatable on his day. His tenure was short-lived but his impact left tidal waves of positive repercussions. He played with a mixture of creativity, finesse, and passion that left me awestruck. This man – of course – is Juan Manuel Mata Garcia.

Mata simply made me sit back in awe and admire his skill. He always seemed to be effortless on the ball: always capable of playing the final ball to unlock the defense and he could easily guide a curling finesse shot into the corner of the goal. I have always been impressed by Juan Mata, and I truly wish he could have remained with Chelsea for much longer than he did.

Credit | Getty Images

For anyone who did not witness his time at Chelsea, it was simply remarkable. His 2012/2013 season was something of pure magic, as he collected 19 goals and 35 assists across all competitions. It was not just the statistics. His overall impact on the offensive front cannot be overstated, and his performances were sublime. Mata had the power to at-times will his team back into matches.

Unfortunately, managerial instability ultimately led to the appointment of Jose Mourinho for his second stint in SW6. This spelled the beginning of the end for Mata and he was eventually sold to Manchester United in 2014. Oh, what could have been. My memories of Juan Mata are that he is one of my all-time favorite players for Chelsea, but mostly I feel that he deserved more time. Well, so did Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, and Mohamed Salah, but that’s a subject for a different article.

Although Mata’s tenure was short-lived it is nonetheless a great story. Mata is a true cult hero for Chelsea Football Club and he should be long-remembered within the fanbase for his impressive displays, disproportionate impacts, and situational heroics.

Mata: The Early Years with Valencia

Juan Mata started his career with Real Madrid’s youth academy but eventually left La Castilla for Valencia in Spain’s LaLiga in 2007. At Valencia, Mata broke into the starting XI while playing for manager Ronald Koeman. Mata showed offensive talent in this debut season at Valencia and eventually claimed the Best Young Player at the club. On the field, Mata scored crucial goals and helped Valencia lift the Copa del Rey title in 2008.

Mata at valencia
Credit | Getty Images

Mata continued his impressive displays as a young player at Valencia. His flashes of attacking brilliance became as commonplace as death and taxes the longer he remained in the starting XI. Mata also developed an effective attacking partnership with then-Valencia players, David Villa and David Silva. By the end of the 2008/2009 season with Valencia, the young attacking prodigy tallied 14 goals and 20 assists across all competitions. Notably, though, 17 of his 20 assists came in LaLiga. Mata continued his successes in 2009/2010. He scored 14 goals and collected 12 assists across all competitions and finished with 9 goals and 18 assists in 2010/2011. This consistency rightfully caught the attention of many top clubs. 2010/2011 proved to be Mata’s final season with Valencia and he signed for Chelsea Football Club in the summer of 2011.

Transfer to Chelsea- Humble Beginnings in 2011

Juan Mata moved to Chelsea for a reported 23.5 million pound fee and signed a five year deal with the club. Yossi Benayoun gave his number 10 to Mata upon his arrival, and Mata made his competitive debut wearing the No.10 against Norwich City on August 27, 2011. He appeared as a substitute and scored in his debut with an injury-time goal. Mata continued to increase his impact on the field by scoring and assisting often. Mata became increasingly more integral to the side’s offensive output, as evidenced by his man-of-the-match performance against Newcastle United in December 2011. The early stages of Mata’s time at Chelsea suggested that he would become a successful transfer.

Following his MOTM performance against Newcastle, on December 6, 2011, Mata faced his former club Valencia in a crucial Champions League Match that had implications for advancing to the knockout rounds. He finished this match with 2 assists and aided Chelsea to a 3-0 win that saw the club finish top of their Champion’s League group. Mata then scored the club’s only goal in the 3-1 away loss to Napoli in the round of 16 of the Champions League. This loss was a key result that led to the dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas (AVB) as a manager, and Roberto Di Matteo was soon appointed interim manager. The impact of Mata’s goal cannot be overstated enough. Simply put, without that goal in Naples, Chelsea never would have lifted the UCL title in 2012. This was the initial inkling of a cult hero in the making.

Cementing His Legacy

Roberto Di Mateo took control of the squad and immediately changed how Mata was deployed. Mata was moved into a central attacking midfield position, as opposed to previously being played on the wing. Mata responded phenomenally, by going on a scoring spree in the FA Cup rounds and scored a crucial goal against Wigan to win the match for Chelsea, keeping their hopes of the Top 4 and Champions League qualification adrift. A theme quickly emerged with Mata: big goals, big assists, and always popping up in crucial moments for the squad. A true X-factor.

Mata continued the 2011/2012 Premier League season in spectacular fashion, finishing with 13 assists and 6 goals across 34 appearances. More than a successful first season in England for the Spanish magician. However, let’s forget the statistics for a bit. Let’s revisit what Juan “big-game” Mata did when titles were on the line.

Flashback to the FA Cup Final against Liverpool in 2012. Chelsea opened the scoring in this cup final with Mata playing an assist in to the feet Ramires. Chelsea went on to win this cup 2-1, and Mata was named Man of the Match. Juan Mata was the best player on the pitch in the first cup final for Chelsea in May 2012. The FA Cup title final felt like a blessing because of how disappointing the season had been from a domestic standpoint, as the club finished outside of the Top 4.

The second cup final of 2012 was none other than that famous night in Munich. The Champions League Final. The final that a disappointing Chelsea squad had no business playing in. The final that Chelsea theoretically stood no chance. The final against all the odds. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. No, I am not referring to Didier Drogba. Yes, Drogba scored the goal to send it to extra time, but who played the ball from the corner flag for Drogba to score? Juan “Big Game” Mata assisted Drogba from the corner.

Without this corner kick delivery, Chelsea never win the UCL title. Chelsea also would have never been competing for the title if not for Mata’s road goal in Naples. A big-game player, a sublime playmaker, and a cult hero for Chelsea. I would argue that without Juan Mata, the Champions League title would not have been lifted for Chelsea. Juan Mata won Chelsea’s Player’s Player of the Year award for 2011/2012. Let that sink in. Mata won Chelsea Player of the Year in the only season Chelsea have won the Champions League. Quite an achievement and one that cemented his status as a cult hero at Chelsea, no matter what the future would hold.

Juan Mata UCL winner
Credit | Reuters

Mata in Mazacar: Life After the UCL title

Juan Mata was far from finished producing incredible results and moments at Chelsea. In the 2012/2013 season that was initially managed by Roberto Di Mateo and then the much-maligned Rafa Benitez, Mata did nothing but continue to produce statistics at a rate many have failed to replicate at Chelsea Football Club. I distinctly remember sitting in my collegiate dorm watching the away match to Arsenal at the Emirates in fall 2012. Mata opened the scoring by playing a great ball into the box that Fernando Torres latched onto and scored. Later in the same match, the big-time player Mata scored from a direct free-kick to hand Chelsea the eventual 2-1 away win over Arsenal.

Fast forward again in the 2012/2013 season to another away match in a derby against Spurs. Mata continued to play his best in big matches, by scoring 2 goals and providing an assist in a 4-2 win, and collecting Man of the Match. The cult hero continued to impress and produce goals that had massive impacts. Cult hero Mata was also awarded Player of the Month for October 2012. Mata continued to have impressive performances, and the club rewarded the star player with a contract extension until 2018.

Mata had one of the most impressive seasons ever from an attacking player at Chelsea in 2012/2013. He finished with 19 goals and 35 assists across all competitions and was even nominated for the PFA Player of the Year award. Mata went on to win the Chelsea Player’s Player of the Season award for a second consecutive season in 2012/2013. Mata also repeated his corner kick routine from that night in Munich in another European final. Against Benfica in the Europa League Final, Mata played a corner kick into the box that Branislav Ivanovic headed home to win the cup for Chelsea. Another late corner kick. Another late, match-deciding assist for the big-game cult hero.

Mata wins UEL
Credit | Getty Images

And All That Mata Have Been

Unfortunately, one of my all-time favorite players was needlessly forced out of the club by an egotistical and short-sighted Jose Mourinho. Shockingly, after Mourinho took over for a second time at the club in summer 2013, he decided that Oscar was his man to play as an attacking midfielder over the best player Chelsea had the 2 previous seasons. I never understood it at the time, and I am still equally perplexed in the present day as to why Mata was forced out. I heard the usual tropes from Jose. Mata did not work hard enough defensively and was not physically-suited to be a CAM (just as Mourinho treated Joe Cole by shoving him out wide as he thought Cole lacked the physicality to be a CAM). The same fate was shown to De Bruyne, Salah, and Lukaku for similar reasons under Mourinho.

Had another manager been appointed, perhaps Mata would have continued and become a player that hit incredible heights at Chelsea. Unfortunately, he was forced out through no fault of his own. He was outcast by a manager simply because he was mostly an attacking player, which is unsurprising, given that was exactly what Mata excelled so well in to win 2 consecutive player of the seasons at Chelsea. Somehow Andres Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Mateo, and Rafa Benitez all shaped their attacking game plan around Juan Mata, with incredible results including 3 cup titles in 2 seasons. This task was too much for Mourinho. What a shame. Now I am left pondering all that could have been if Mata would have played out his contract until 2018.

Juan Mata had a short tenure with Chelsea. He was not here for a long time, but he was here for some great times. He produced such moments of brilliance, could unlock any defense, posted statistics that are reminiscent of FIFA video game numbers, and had a disproportionate impact during his time with Chelsea that makes him one of our greatest cult heroes ever. His impact was disproportionate because the goals and assists he created came at massive moments for the club, akin to Drogba always popping up to score in cup finals. Without Mata, I do not believe that Chelsea would have lifted a Champions League title. A cult hero that will always live on fondly in the recesses of my neural networks, and I hope Mata does the same for all Chelsea fans.

Thanks for everything, Juan Mata.

Written by Travis Flock @Crossroads_CFC

Edited by Jai Mcintosh @jjmcintosh5


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