Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mourinho/AVB just the undercard

Originally published on the Montreal Gazette's Goal Posts blog on Saturday morning, 28th September.

Much of the press surrounding this weekend's matchup between Tottenham and Chelsea has been about the fractured friendship of the managers, Andre Villas-Boas and Jose Mourinho.

While it is true that Villas-Boas followed Mourinho around like a puppy heeling to his master, the comparisons are - as usual - overstated.  Mourinho's teams are usually best on the counter-attack, while Villas-Boas tends to favour a little more ball control. The Elder's squads are made up of uncompromising types who start out wanting to kill for their boss, and end up wanting just to kill him; his padawan is far milder and prefers fewer histrionics.

But the clubs' rivalry, based as much around Villas-Boas' ill-fated stint at Chelsea as their personal relationship, isn't the most important battle of wills on display at White Hart Lane today.

Far more integral to the Blues' season is the effect of Jose Mourinho's display of primal chest-puffing affects fallen superstar Juan Mata.  More precisely, Chelsea's season doesn't rest on one clash with Villas-Boas and his new men, but with how well Mata is able to integrate into this newest edition of Chelsea

Why the new/old boss left such gifted player sidelined comes down to one of only three reasons: either Mourinho felt Mata would not be benefit the side; his playing would unhelpful to the player himself (and, by extension, Chelsea) or - most headline-grabbingly - it's personal.

Whilie Mourinho has form for playing the man, it's almost inconceivable he'd choose the even-tempered Mata as a sitting target for this kind of vitriol, connections with Rafael Benitez, Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos notwithstanding.  Thus, it's fair to assume that his reasoning is probably tactical.

This is concerning, as Mourinho has suggested that Mata's game didn't suit his plans.  Even to the most appreciative eye, Jose's clubs tend towards brutally effective football rather than aesthetics, meaning he envisions a future for Chelsea which doesn't exploit the strengths of a willo'-the-wisp like Mata.  While it's true that Mourinho has encouraged great performances from players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Milito, employing his unusual brand of discipline to an utter professional like Mata seems reductive and somewhat counterproductive. Finding someone who can fault Juan Mata for the failed title challenges of 2011-12 and 2012-13 is like trying to find a introvert in the Big Brother house.

Minimalising Juan Mata's football might be the easiest way for Jose Mourinho to get results, but it also counts as a (admittedly petty) crime against the sport.  Managers are paid to get results; this particular manager chooses to do so in the simplest and most straightforward method possible.  With the force of personality Mourinho wields - and the utter professionalism displayed by his player - it appears likely that the requisite changes will be made and Mata will adapt to play Jose-ball.

Chelsea will be richer for it, but the Premiership may be immeasurably worse.

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