The way Jose Mourinho has been selecting lineups, it’s as if he didn’t watch Chelsea play last season for a single second. Anyone who has would have told him that playing Fernando Torres without having Juan Mata lined up behind him is pretty much useless, as the Spaniard is the only one of the attacking midfield trio capable of creating opportunities for strikers.
It takes one big mistake to realize another one made early on this season. Jose Mourinho talks about not caring about the past. There’s only what he sees in training and in the matches under him. Whatever Mata did over the last two years under Villas-Boas, Di Matteo and Benitez doesn’t matter to him. The fact that Mata has been the best player on the pitch for his club over the last two matches does.
A story of two halves in the London derby between Chelsea and Tottenham, ending in a 1-1 draw: The first was Mourinho’s arrogance and vanity shining through, but with Tottenham being the better side with complete dominance in the midfield, as Frank Lampard proved once again how unfit he is in the middle of the pitch, while John Obi Mikel struggled being the physical figure that stops Moussa Dembele and Paulinho from pushing forward without much opposition.
The second half was Mourinho realizing his early mistake of wasting Ramires on the wing and thinking that Oscar can run the game for him. Both Oscar and Eden Hazard are very talented players – quick and strong finishers. But when given the wrong kind of roles, all that talent, youth and promise goes out the window. However, Chelsea did benefit from their manager not sticking to his “ideals” for more than 45 minutes.
The moment Mata came on the pitch and Ramires moved to a more comfortable central midfielder role, the balance of the match shifted. Suddenly, there was someone with creativity and vision in the Chelsea midfield. Mata, later being praised by Mourinho for his effort and defending, was the Chelsea offense, including the assist from the free kick that found John Terry in the box, maybe slightly offside, but a goal nonetheless. Spurs suddenly had to worry about Mata, and made Dembele hang back a bit more, while Ramires’ tackling stopped Paulinho a couple of times from leading a counter attack.
Fernando Torres did get sent off, but it might have been the first time in a league match this season that he has looked so lively in. From the minute Juan Mata took the pitch, Torres looked a lot more loose and ready to make something of the match. The mathematics of when and where he should have been booked doesn’t matter. His encounters with Jan Vertonghen, who should have been sent off as well, were always going to end badly for one or both of them.
Chelsea continue to look unconvincing when Mata isn’t on the pitch, because he’s the only player on the team who brings to the table this blend of pragmatism, creativity, dribbling and vision. Without it, things are much too predictable and straight forward, which might have worked with a team that’s stronger physically, but this isn’t the first Mourinho tenure. Chelsea were inferior to Tottenham in most strength battles, which means this season’s success will work on guile and skill and not on pure brute force.