By Liam Twomey
A year ago, what would prove to be one of the most exciting seasons in Premier League history had just reached its halfway point, still swooning under the spell of a sublime little Spaniard.
Having sparkled intermittently in his first season England before enjoying a rare summer rest, David Silva embarked upon his second healthy, physically and mentally refreshed, and prepared to show exactly what had persuaded Manchester City to pay Valencia around £26 million to procure his services in June 2010.
He wasted no time, scoring in each of his first two Premier League games against Swansea and Bolton, before providing the inspiration for City’s astonishing 5-1 destruction of Tottenham at White Hart Lane at the end of August.
The virtuoso performances continued. Silva was named Premier League Player of the Month for September, and in October he gave a masterclass in playmaking – as well as scoring himself – as City humiliated bitter rivals Manchester United 6-1 at Old Trafford and sent shockwaves around Europe.
His combinations with the likes of Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri and Edin Dzeko were dazzling, and his technique and decision-making appeared flawless. By the time he scored one of the goals of the season in City’s 3-2 win over QPR at Loftus Road in November, journalists were ready to cast their votes for Player of the Year.
But then something happened: 2012 came and Silva faded. The touch, skill and awareness were still there, but he ceased to dominate matches. Others instead shouldered the burden of being the key figures in the final stages of City’s title charge: Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Aguero.
It was a mark of how sensational his early season form was that Silva still finished the season with more goal assists than any other Premier League player, but the magic grew rare after Christmas.
The reason, most believe, was fatigue. That Silva’s decline immediately followed a relentlessly demanding run of festive fixtures appears more than a coincidence. There is also the argument that other aspects of our footballing culture may have played a significant role.
In September 2011, as Silva was running riot, Chelsea boss Rafa Benitez published a statistical study on his website which concluded that Premier League players run on average 100m more per game than their La Liga counterparts, sprint more and for longer, and engage in more draining tussles for possession in the air and on the floor.
It would be no surprise, then, if City’s constant reliance on Silva to create chances, in a league more physically demanding than anything he had experienced before, eventually took its toll. But if true, Benitez would do well to let history – and his numbers – inform the future.
A year on from Silva’s exploits, the Premier League is once again in the thrall of an Iberian wizard. Juan Mata is himself the conjurer-in-chief in a Chelsea side which has, despite being undermined by the club’s apparent craving for controversy and chaos off the pitch, produced some of the best football seen this season on it.
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Were it not for the remarkable feats of Robin van Persie, Luis Suarez and self-fulfilling ‘Signing of the Season’ Michu, Mata would boast perhaps the strongest claim of all to be clubhouse leader for Player of the Year as we embark on 2013. If his form continues, he may still find himself in the debate.
But it is this ‘if’ which should be worrying Benitez. For Chelsea’s reliance on Mata for inspiration is almost total. In the four Premier League matches he has not started, the Blues have faced QPR home and away, West Brom at the Hawthorns and Fulham at Stamford Bridge, without winning once.
Given the wealth of creative talent Roman Abramovich has bestowed upon Benitez and, formerly, Roberto Di Matteo, this seems counter-intuitive. Hazard is a player capable of splitting open any defence, and Oscar is a 21-year-old blessed with genius. But without Mata linking the play and pulling the strings, Chelsea’s lavishly expensive ship appears rudderless.
Wary of burning his star man out after a packed summer which involved Euro 2012 and Olympic commitments, Di Matteo wisely gave Mata a break of over a fortnight at the beginning of September. The Spaniard, suitably rejuvenated, produced his best performances in a Blue shirt on his return, but there are tantalising signs he may be starting to labour again.
In Wednesday’s shock home defeat to Swansea in the Capital One Cup, Mata was unable to unlock a massed and motivated visiting defence in his customary manner, and his influence waned rather than grew as the game wore on and moved away from Chelsea.
Of course, one bad performance does represent a decline. But with Benitez under intense pressure and the fixture list as unyielding as ever, the Blues must learn how to win without their talisman, or run the risk that someday soon they will find it impossible to win with him.
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