The growing career of Juan Mata looks set to take another step forward this week as Chelsea look to wrap up a €26m deal for the Spanish playmaker, in the process fending off the overtures of a number of Premier League clubs to land the much-coveted Valencia winger. Whilst an impressive signing for the progressive ambitions of the London team, the move to the Premier League runners-up also represents another stage in the 23-year-old’s impressive journey.
Although Mata made his name at Valencia, his early teenage development was spent elsewhere: first at home-club Real Oviedo, then at Real Madrid Castilla. As a centre-forward at Los Blancos’ B team, he could call on teammates of the calibre of Alvaro Negredo, Ruben de la Red, Esteban Granero, Adrian and Javi Garcia. International recognition soon followed with a starring role in Spain’s European Under-19 Championship success in 2006. The youngster was then fast-tracked to the Under-21 squad and impressed enough against England to require Madrid to reportedly reject offers for the player from a number of English clubs. The Spanish giants however, let the talented Austurian slip through their fingers when, with his contract running down in 2007, he opted to move to Valencia at the age of 19.
One of the few things former Valencia Coach Ronald Koeman is remembered fondly for around Mestalla is providing Mata his chance on the left flank in 2007. Taking advantage of the injuries that would ultimately curtail the career of Vicente, Mata fashioned a regular role for himself, scoring twice against Barcelona in the semi-final of the Copa del Rey and earning the club’s award for best young player.
Where many promising youngsters struggle in their second season, Mata established himself as one of the hottest prospects in La Liga. The player enjoyed a productive season with 14 goals and was second only to Xavi in the assist chart with 13. His form saw him become a fixture in Vicente del Bosque’s national squads from late 2008. After making his debut in a 1-0 win against Turkey in March 2009, Mata was then a part of the 2009 Confederations Cup and 2010 World Cup squads.
Having already replaced the experience of Vicente at club level, Mata effectively repeated the feat at international level as Del Bosque gradually phased out former Espanyol and Liverpool wide man Albert Riera from the Spanish set-up. Meanwhile, the 2009-10 campaign saw Mata’s intelligent interplay with David Silva and David Villa become the catalyst behind Valencia’s third-place finish: their highest position in four seasons. Between them, the trio netted 38 of the 59 League goals scored by Los Che. All three would go on to greater things on the international stage during Spain’s triumph in South Africa with Mata offering capable back-up from the substitutes’ bench.
Born: April 28, 1988 (Burgos, Castile and Leon)
Position: Left or right-sided winger / second striker / playmaker
Height: 5ft7 Weight: 63kg
Key attributes: Positional intelligence, creative sense, control and use of possession
Previous clubs: Real Oviedo, Real Madrid
La Liga debut: September 2, 2007 vs. Almeria
Spain debut: March 28, 2009 vs. Turkey (2010 World Cup qualifier
The summer 2010 sale of Villa and Silva hastened his development into an inside-forward with the greater responsibility of leading the team. Demonstrating increasing subtlety in his play, the youngster ably responded, ending the campaign with an impressive 15 assists. As the season drew to a close, it was reported in May that a trio of English outfits – the Manchester clubs and Liverpool – were interested in signing the 23-year-old.
As Mata joined up with the Spanish squad for the 2011 European Under-21 Championship in June, his future remained up in the air. At the heart of the speculation was the release clause in Mata’s contract that enabled him to move for as little as €23m should a bid meet that valuation by July 31. An on-off move to Arsenal appeared to gather momentum when it looked likely that both Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri would be leaving, whilst at the end of July, Tottenham Hotspur made a last-ditch bid to usurp their rivals with a bid that met the release clause but for their overtures to be rejected by Mata. No deal was reached with either side despite Mata admitting he had spoken to both, and the rescission clause in his contract was raised to €60m.
Mata however spoke to President Manuel Llorente who privately confirmed that the player would be able to leave should an offer approaching €30m be received. This is mainly due to the fact next summer the release clause would again drop in July and explains the acceptance of Chelsea’s bid of between €26-30m, from a club that importantly, Mata was prepared to consider too.
Direct and technically gifted, Mata possesses a potent left foot, comfortable either crossing from wide areas or shooting from the edge of the box. His quick feet and precise link-up play allow him to operate comfortably behind the striker. However, with Chelsea often appearing to lack width in attacking areas, Mata is expected to fill either one of the wing slots in the 4-3-3 commonly deployed by Andre Villas-Boas. At this stage it appears most likely that he will reprise the inverted right-winger role where he shone at this summer’s European Under-21 Championship.
As Mata leaves Spain for England, fans of the Stamford Bridge club may be tempted to draw parallels with another left-winger who moved to London, Jose Antonio Reyes. While they both possess undoubted talent, the comparisons should end there for Mata is unlikely to experience Reyes’ struggles with homesickness. The 23-year-old has been learning English for some time, has experience of studying at university, and appears to be a stronger candidate to adapt to life in a foreign country. The conditions are set for Juan Mata to continue his unwavering rise into the big time.