Chelsea's Spanish Midfielder Mata Is the Real Special Juan

Garry HayesFeatured ColumnistApril 18, 2013

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 17: Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez talks to Juan Mata before the Barclays Premier League match between Fulham and Chelsea at Craven Cottage on April 17, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
Steve Bardens/Getty Images

When debating the contribution of Juan Mata at Chelsea, the natural reaction is to make reference to the 18 goals or incredible 25 assists he has notched this season.

Those statistics alone outline how magnificent the Spaniard has been for the Blues, and without him in the starting XI, Rafa Benitez's side often appears a weaker force.

Yet, for all their impressive reading, those stats tell just a part of the story.

This summer will see a major change at Stamford Bridge, with Frank Lampard expected to depart when his contract expires after 12 seasons in West London. Romantics will feel a considerable void in their hearts without the familiar sight of the 34-year-old, while perhaps more importantly, Chelsea are expected to feel a considerable void in their starting lineup.

Much of this talk is aimed at how Chelsea will replace the considerable talents of Lampard, but with Mata in their ranks, fans need not worry. And here's why.

Coveted by playmakers across the globe, the No.10 jersey he dons with such aplomb brings with it an air of expectation, an expected flair that so many fail to live up to. The role and understanding of what a No.10 brings to a team has evolved over the years and Mata is a fine example of that.

With either Eden Hazard, Brazilian attacker Oscar or Victor Moses in tow, Chelsea's front three behind the striker enjoy an air of creative freedom not overly enjoyed by their teammates. Whether it be swapping wings or roaming to central positions, their place in the side isn't rigid.

But where Hazard and Oscar may rotate from left to right and vice versa, Mata is very much the creative hub of this Chelsea team. He roams, he probes and, put simply, everything goes through him.

He is one part of the "Three Amigos," sure, but he is the most vital in that threesome. John Mikel Obi and Ramires are loading the gun further back in midfield, but it is Mata pulling the trigger to fire Chelsea forward.

He's not doing it in the way commonly associated with a No.10, though. Mata isn't sitting in the hole, being fed by a deep-lying teammate in the way we think.

In some ways, he resembles a Claude Makelele-Frank Lampard love child. Where "Maka" would feed his teammates and get attacks moving, Mata does just that. And where Lampard so often clinically finished off attacks during his Chelsea career, so too does Mata. His 18 goals this term outline that much.

He's not quite in the box-to-box mould of his teammate, but elements of that quality are undoubtedly there.

As the diagram from Wednesday's vital 3-0 victory over Fulham outlines (above), Mata's role is more akin to that of a transitional midfielder—almost. He drops deep to receive possession and often gets attacks moving. Yet he contradicts that impression further forward in the opponent's half, remaining a constant threat, scheming and either assisting a goal or finding himself on the scoresheet.

In contrast, Hazard operates more wider, leaving Mata the space he needs—a reason why they have proven so effective together. To reinforce the point, it's not in the exact way we have seen Lampard influence games at Stamford Bridge for the best part of a decade, but the similarities remain.

Cynics will say that Mata comes at a cost, however. Chelsea's current 4-2-3-1 system suits his character and allows him to roam—often to the opposition's detriment. But it does limit the Blues to playing just one striker, meaning any potential partnership between Demba Ba and Fernando Torres will be confined to brief cameos like we saw in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley.

The Ba-Torres combination worked to good effect against Manchester City. Chelsea scored within 10 seconds of Torres coming off the bench and there have been signs that, with a little work on the training ground, they could strike up a productive relationship.

Starting both would force Mata out wide, meaning the Blues lose his influence where it is most felt.

This Chelsea team is beginning to evolve around the Spaniard, though and that is one considerable platform on which to build as the Blues target Premier League success in 2013-14.