January is an important month for the largest professional football (soccer) leagues. It's both the half-way point of the season and also the only time a club can make an in-season player move. Until last weekend, in the sport’s biggest league, the Barclay’s Premier League, there had been many rumors, but no major moves. That all changed on Saturday, January 25 when Chelsea’s Juan Mata was transferred to Manchester United for a £37.1 million ($61.5 million) transfer fee; a record-breaking exchange between two of the sport’s biggest clubs. Manchester United is valued at $3.16 billion, making them the second most valuable club in the world, and Chelsea with a valuation of $900 million is the world’s seventh-largest club. This transfer is big news for more than just the money changing hands; it’s also loaded with intrigue and speculation that it could have a huge effect on the eventual winner of the league.
2 Who Trades Their Player of the Year?
This guy does. Chelsea selling Mata to Manchester United without getting a player like Wayne Rooney in return would have been impossible to imagine only a few months ago. Juan Mata has been an extremely popular, and productive player at Chelsea, winning Player of the Year honors in 2012 and 2013. But from the start of this season, Mata has been out of favor with Chelsea’s new manager Jose Mourinho. Although healthy, Mata has only played in 17 of Chelsea’s 34 matches while only scoring one goal. A huge drop-off in playing time and production.
It’s not unusual for a manager to join a club and change the way players are used. But with Mourinho’s arrival at Chelsea, Mata immediately went from a featured player to mop-up duty, an extreme shift. As a player, Mata should still be in his prime, yet Mourinho never gave him a chance to play significant minutes. Over the last two years, Mata has been an incredible player, creating more scoring chances than every other player in the League except one: his former teammate David Silva.
1 Timing is Everything
The Mata to Manchester United rumors started last summer, but in reality, this deal materialized very quickly. As recently as last Tuesday, leadership within Manchester United was telling reporters that rumors about Mata coming to United in January were not true, stating that if something did happen, it would not be until the summer (after the season ends). But four days later, Mata is a member of Manchester United.
There is another very interesting aspect to the timing of this transfer. The Sunday before it happened, January 19th, Chelsea played United at home and won 3-1. Many think that victory triggered Chelsea’s strong desire to deal Mata to United, and this is where the intrigue comes in. It was the second and last match of the season between the two teams. Manchester United is the League’s reigning champions, but they are in the middle of an injury-plagued campaign that has them buried in seventh place. On the other hand, Chelsea is having an excellent season, currently in third place, 12 points ahead of United.
In the aftermath of Chelsea’s victory over United, many people including Mourinho, have declared that Manchester United is too far off the lead to repeat as League Champions. United is trailing the league leader Arsenal by 14 points, and even with an excellent second-half, that might prove to be too much ground to make up. But that does not mean that going forward, the champions will be an easy team to beat; most expect the exact opposite is true. All season, the United squad has been ravaged by injury, but their two best players are about to return, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney. The impact of Rooney and van Persie returning transforms United into a much better team. This season injuries have prevented them from playing together in all but seven games, but in those matches United is undefeated with a 5-0-2 record. Now the reigning champs may be healthy again and buoyed by the arrival of one of the most creative offensive players in the world, Juan Mata.
For the second half of the season, many are wondering how a healthy United squad with Juan Mata could affect the Premier League standings, including Arsene Wenger, the manager of Arsenal, the team currently in first place. When asked for his thoughts on the Mata transfer, Wenger told Sky Sports, “I am surprised. Juan Mata is a great player, and they sell a great player to a direct opponent. Chelsea has already played Man United twice; they could have sold him last week. I think if you want to respect the fairness for everyone, this should not have happened.”
Over the years, Jose Mourinho and Wenger have traded verbal barbs. So it’s not surprising that through ESPN, Mourinho responded to Wenger’s comments by saying, “Wenger complaining is normal because he always does.” Mourinho added, “This is the market. We don’t do the market; we don't do the rules. We have just to do according to the rules.”
But Wenger is not the only manager who is questioning the motives and timing around the Mata transfer. Manuel Pellegrini, the manager of the league’s second-place team Manchester City, also took issue with the purpose and timing of the move. Pellegrini told The Telegraph, “Maybe Manchester United have an advantage because Chelsea wanted to sell him. I am talking about fair play. If you allow it, then maybe teams with a lot of money can buy important players from the teams fighting with them for the title.”
Wenger and Pellegrini have more than a passing interest in the Mata transfer. Both managers have one more match with Manchester United; Arsenal on February 12th, and Manchester City on March 25th. Assuming United is healthy, the squad they will put on the pitch for those games will be a much more formidable team, compared to the lineup they played when they lost to Chelsea on the 19th. With only two points separating the three teams at the top of the Barclay’s Premier League standings, an Arsenal or Man City loss to United could open the door for Chelsea to win the League Championship. Not an impossible feat considering how explosive United could be with Mata, van Persie and Rooney. If this scenario plays out, Jose Mourinho, known as The Brilliant One, will have pulled off his greatest move ever.