Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mourinho could accommodate both Oscar and Mata centrally in 4-3-3

There's been no shortage of controversy surrounding Jose Mourinho's decision to use Chelsea's back-to-back player of the year Juan Mata so sparingly at the start of this season. Mata has started just two of five league games. In Chelsea's three biggest fixtures to date- the league game away to Manchester United, the UEFA Super Cup with Bayern Munich and the home Champions League fixture with FC Basel- Mata has made just one substitute appearance. He didn't even feature on the substitutes bench in the weekend win over Fulham.

On the face of it, Mourinho's decision seems bemusing. Mata led the Premier League last season with 12 assists and also chipped in an impressive 12 goals. His ability to find pockets of space in the opposition defense and play a decisive final pass is unmatched in English football.

However, Mourinho has stated publicly that Oscar will be his first choice number 10 and has also hinted that until Mata adapts his game and is willing to do more yeoman's work tracking opposition fullbacks, he won't see much time wide on the right either. Throughout his managerial career, Mourinho has primarily built his sides'  around a solid, compact defensive shape and the ability to break quickly into space on the counter.

This is a style of play more suited to Oscar in the number 10 role. The young Brazilian's work rate and tackling ability enable him to drop in and relentlessly press the opposition holding midfielders when Chelsea are defending. His pace then allows him to sprint into space behind the holding midfielders to spring counters when Chelsea win the ball back. It's unique for a number 10 to do the kind of defensive work typically seen from Oscar. In the 2-0 win Saturday over Fulham he had 7 successful tackles, more than any other player. Incredibly, 5 of those were in the opposition's defensive half. It is that willingness and ability to win the ball back high up the pitch that Mourinho so highly values.


While Oscar doesn't possess Mata's vision and creativity on the ball, his off the ball movements are exceptional. His opening day goal against Hull City sums up his incredible energy and intelligent movement. He starts the move checking towards John Terry 45 yards from goal. Terry plays a long ball into the left channel for Eden Hazard to run into. Oscar turns and sprints 25 yards to the corner of the 18 yard box to provide an option for Hazard. Hazard cuts inside and finds Kevin De Bruyne at the top of the 18. The instant Hazard plays the pass to De Bruyne, Oscar makes a diagonal run to get on the shoulder of the last defender. The timing of the run is perfect and he's able to easily tap in De Bruyne's pass in behind. In the matter of a few seconds he provides a passing option three separate times despite the ball moving half the length of the pitch in that time.

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However, for all of Oscar's fine defensive work and tireless movement, in the absence of Mata Chelsea have often lacked the type of incisive penetrating passes in the final third he is known for, particularly against teams that defend deep against them and force them to patiently pick their way through. Chelsea's performance against Basel and first half against Fulham are prime examples. With both of those sides sitting deep in banks of four, Chelsea saw plenty of the ball but didn't have anyone with the creativity to penetrate the lines with a pass.

It's important to note Oscar scored in both of those games. I wouldn't advocate replacing Oscar with Mata in the middle- he's too valuable on both sides of the ball. However, against teams likely to sit deep and force Chelsea to unlock a crowded defense, Mourinho could viably use both of them in a central role to accommodate both the movement and energy of Oscar and the creativity of Mata. The shape would be 4-3-3 with Mata and Oscar playing in advance of a single holding midfielder. I'd probably use John Obi Mikel over Ramires as the holder for his positional discipline and ability to break up counters. Ramires is a wonderful talent but his biggest attribute is his athleticism and ability to break through the opposition midfield into space with his pace and energy. Against teams that defend deep there isn't that space to burst into and too often he makes rash challenges to operate as a lone holder. In possession Oscar would play more of a box-to-box role with Mata positioning himself closer to the striker and getting into pockets of space between the lines. The shape would still accommodate two more of Chelsea's talented attacking midfielders on the two wings. Defensively, Oscar would drop in alongside Mikel to form a bank of four with the outside midfielders. Mata would defend higher up the field with the main striker. Oscar is more than capable of doing the necessary defensive work slightly further back in midfield. The shape provides defensive cover in midfield in Mikel, pace and energy in Oscar and creativity and vision in Mata without sacrificing a whole lot defensively.

If Mourinho is as special as he claims, he should be able to find a way to adjust his style of play to accommodate a player of Mata's ability rather than the other way around. A creative presence in the middle of the park is important against deep lying defenses and until Mourinho finds a way to include his most gifted creative player in these matches, Chelsea will continue to struggle.

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