Humble, witty, intelligent... and he can play a bit. What Prem fans can expect from Juan Mata
Football Spy has signed up some of the web's top foreign football experts to provide you with first-hand information on the latest Premier League transfer targets. Here's www.spanishfootball.info 's David Cartlidge's in-depth profile of new Chelsea signing Juan Mata.
Juan Mata’s career at this juncture has been one of time, and that it is always of the essence.
He's never been short of admirers, even as a 12 year-old at Real Oviedo. Within three years Mata had realised a dream of many youngsters up and down the country: signing for Real Madrid. He swiftly moved through the youth ranks at the capital club and in the process became a word of mouth phenomenon – some even daring to call him the new Raul.
While featuring for the Juvenil A side in 2005-06, Mata grabbed 18 goals to enhance his reputation yet further. Real Madrid rewarded him with promotion to the Castilla side, where he grabbed 10 goals in 40 playing as a central striker. His crowning moment was surely the call-up to the Spanish U-21 squad to play England. There, Premier League scouts had their first sighting of the player and his employers received several offers following that very game – all duly turned down.
Trouble was on the horizon, though. Real Madrid’s Director of Football at the time Predrag Mijatovic made errors with several of the Castilla players’ contracts, meaning with as little as a few months left on deals negotiations were happening with other clubs. Valencia were one of several teams to make an offer to Mata as they capitalized on Madrid's mis-evaluation of talent, showing the player what he called “a sporting project to bet on”.
Valencia would become the home away from home for Mata, and time would again play a significant part. In 2007-08 a chance arose through two swathes of misfortune. Vicente, left winger and fan favourite at the club was notoriously injury prone and his next knock would force then under-fire manager Ronald Koeman into looking for an immediate response. Mata was indeed that. He subsequently went on to feature in more than 20 games, scoring five goals.
Koeman didn't last much longer, and while Mata certainly owed the Dutchman for handing him his chance, he also needed a period of stability to progress as a footballer. He scored 11 times the following season, became a more regular feature in the team and gradually grew more aware to the tactical side of the game.
Mata failed to reach double figures the years that followed but he did begin to grow into a more rounded player, learning to work cohesively with what at the time were a talented group boasting David Silva and David Villa to name a few. The multi-pronged attack made Mata understand his role within a collective and work for the benefit of the team.
Never selfish nor individualistic, Mata’s ability to drop into the right area and release the ball at the correct moment of time shone as he operated in tandem with Silva and Villa – it helped, too, that he could use both feet, though his left displays his subtle technique best. Mata more often than not lined up on the left driving at his full back, looking to beat them with a change of pace or drop of the shoulder. He frequently drove outside his marker and cut the ball back during his time at Valencia.
Mata's inclusion in the 2010 World Cup squad was testament to his reputation in Spain, and he provided versatility. When he returned from South Africa however, the duo of Davids were sold (to Manchester City and Barcelona) as Valencia looked to ease their well-publicised financial impediment. There was talk that Mata might go as well - some even said he’d be better off going – but he stayed, and again the timing proved right.
Given the departure of two such distinctive figures there was a need for collective unity at Valencia, and the ebb and flow of the team was dictated by Mata's presence. A further sign of his growth was a developing penchant for operating in deeper areas, slowing down the tempo and looking to unlock defences carefully rather than be forceful.
Throughout the season, Valencia were guilty at times of an erratic change of styles and by the end of the season they’d used no less than five different formations (predominantly 4-3-3). Irrespective of style though, Mata’s form never suffered. He continued to play at a level which had his refined ability to think assertively and intelligently paramount.
Any concerns that the loss of Villa and Silva would stifle the progress of the club were quelled as Mata took the responsibility handed and revelled in the leadership – he finished the season with eight goals and 12 assists, but his effect on Valencia’s season was more than mere statistics.
Those leadership qualities were prevalent in last summer's U-21 European Championships too. Mata and fellow senior member Javi Martinez became role models in the eventual triumphant squads’ eyes. It spoke volumes too that, even with a World Cup winner’s medal round his neck, Mata insisted on partaking in the U-21s tournament. He thought it would be essential for his maturing as a player and the experience would benefit him later in his career.
Humble, witty and intelligent, Mata has also studied extensively at university.More recently, he started learning English. There’s that timing again...