Spain 4, Belarus 0. The final scoreline in Friday's World Cup Qualifying match may have been all the justification Vicente del Bosque needed.
In the build up to the match, the Spanish manager was heavily criticized by fans and the media—more the English and Premier League-focused outlets—for not selecting Juan Mata for the bout.
The criticism is certainly understandable. So far this season Juan Mata has been one of the best midfielders in England along with national teammate Santi Cazorla.
But when the final whistle blew in the qualifier, Del Bosque's selections were all proven justified.
Pedrito is back
One player many thought could have been sacrificed for Mata is Barcelona's Pedro. However, the winger proved once again that he not only has a place in the squad, he brings something to the table that no other player does.
Pedro's hat trick further showed that his injury concerns are behind him and that he is on the verge of getting back to the elite level he held before last season. Juan Mata just can't do what he does.
In the 4-3-3 that Del Bosque now uses with Cesc Fabregas up front, a true winger is needed. The only pure wide men with a serious chance of selection are Pedro and Jesus Navas.
Mata is a world class playmaker, but he is not a true winger. Nor is he the legitimate scoring threat from the wide position that Pedro is.
Pedro excels at using both feet to create space for his teammates and is a master at beating the defense to get into scoring position. He is also the only player who can play on both wings without missing a beat.
Mata not 'good' enough to start in midfield
So Mata can't take Pedro's spot, but what about the rest of the starting 11? The Chelsea man is certainly one of the most in-form players in football, but is he better than his peers at doing what La Roja needs?
In terms of midfielders, Mata really had no chance of breaking the starting 11 in the 4-3-3.
With Sergio Busquets playing as a center back, Xavi took his place alongside Xabi Alonso as the interchangeable defensive midfielder. As great as Mata is, he has zero chance of displacing either Xavi or Alonso.
The other option would be Santi Cazorla, but this season the former Malaga star has arguably been the best player in England. More importantly, Cazorla is older and more experienced than the Blues star.
What about on the attacking line?
With him being unable to start in midfield and not perfectly suited to replace Pedro, the only remaining options for Mata are to take either Cesc Fabregas or David Silva's place up front.
While Mata is more in form than those two and at least close to being on their level, he has nowhere near the experience and is not superior to either player.
Fabregas is the only one of the three who has proven capable of playing as a false 9 and while Mata may be capable, it is not his ideal position. Plus, the Barcelona man is getting back on track this season and remains a favored player for Spain.
Silva's spot out wide is probably Mata's best chance of breaking the starting 11, but Del Bosque obviously does not see any reason to take the proven, world class Silva off for a player who, while in form, has not proven that he can do the job better.
But why was he not selected at all?
OK, so Juan Mata is good enough to start for Spain, but not so good that he can replace any of the world class players currently being chosen by Del Bosque.
Fair enough, but why wasn't he even chosen to come off the bench? Surely there was someone on the team who could make room for Mata.
Looking at the options, there are two players who were most argued could have been left off—Javi Martinez and Beñat.
Why only those two? Because he is not a true winger and even though he can and does play out wide in a three-man line, he is not as good as Jesus Navas in that role, especially on the right side.
Andres Iniesta was the other attacking midfielder on the bench and no non-Chelsea or Premier League supporter would ever argue that Mata should take his place.
So it had to be Beñat or Martinez. The problem is that given the weak defensive options for Spain, Mata was again hampered by not being the perfect fit.
Martinez is the only true enforcing defensive midfielder on the team so his place is almost a given at this point. More importantly, he gives Del Bosque the option of being used in central defense if needed.
Beñat has been spectacular over the last year, close to the level of Mata even, but has not quite been as good as the Champions League winner.
However, the Betis man is a true central midfielder and is more suited to take Xavi's place than Mata. The former Valencia star can play that role, but is more attack-minded and less useful in the deeper role, as he showed against Barcelona last year.
Once again, Spain's strikers are the problem
When we look at the starting formation Del Bosque used, it is clear that there was no reason to take three strikers. By once again employing Fabregas as a false 9, the coach could have left one of them off in order to bring Mata on.
Which one? Not David Villa, obviously. Spain's all-time leading scorer may be than Fernando Torres and Roberto Soldado, but he is also the best finisher.
Out of the remaining two, it is really a toss-up. Torres has been a bit better this season, but he also has far superior support at Chelsea.
Over the last two years, Soldado has been at least as good as Torres at the club level and better for Spain. Although, he is less capable of creating goals than Torres has shown in the past.
Blame the defense
The other, arguably bigger reason Mata was left off is less obvious.
Gerard Pique is part of why he wasn't taken. Because of the Barcelona defender's injury along with Carles Puyol's, Busquets was chosen to start alongside Sergio Ramos.
As I previously explained, this meant Xavi starting beside Alonso with Beñat being needed for depth at the position.
If Pique had been healthy enough to play, Beñat would not have been as necessary with Martinez and Xavi providing defensive midfield depth since Buquets would move back to midfield. That leaves room for Mata, just like what happened at the Euros.
Mata still has a place with Spain
Realistically, either Torres or Soldado could have been dropped for Juan Mata because neither is superior to the other in regards to Spain's needs in attack.
So, why wasn't either left off? It appears Del Bosque had a very clear idea of what he wanted against Belarus and how he wanted to line up against them.
As I have explained, Mata is just not needed or quite the same stand-out player in Del Bosque's 4-3-3. However, when using the double pivot system—Spain's transforming 4-2-3-1—gives him much more opportunity for selection.
In that formation, Mata can slip into the wide position alongside Silva and Fabregas in front of Villa or another striker.
He won't start over Iniesta, Xavi—when Busquets in in midfield—or Cazorla, but he at least has a spot on the bench.
Pedro is superior as a true winger, but Mata is the better play-maker and in this formation, he is allowed the space and passing options up front to excel.
Surprising, but justified
A player of Juan Mata's caliber has every right to be surprised and even frustrated about not being chosen to play for his national side.
At almost any other team in the world, Mata would be the best midfielder available. Even for La Roja, he has proven to be one of the best midfielders at Vicente del Bosque's disposal.
Even though he was not chosen to play against Belarus, Mata should take solace in knowing that he will have plenty of chances to shine for Spain in the future.
He is still only 24 years old and is already one of the most decorated midfielders alive with a World Cup, European Championship, U-19 championship and U-21 title to his name.
Mata might not have been needed or a perfect fit to play against Belarus, but he unquestionably has the talent and skill set to be a long-term feature for La Roja in the future.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!