Criticism of the Colombian is shockingly premature
In a way, Juan Cuadrado has been unfortunate.
His transfer to Chelsea was not only very expensive, but it also included Mohamed Salah moving to Fiorentina on a two-year loan deal.
While the Colombian has been used sparingly by his new club, the Egyptian has taken immediately to Serie A and instantly become one of Vincenzo Montella’s most productive players.
That’s a jarring contrast. Whilst Salah is busy reacquiring the reputation he earned at Basel, Cuadrado has started just two games for Chelsea and enjoyed a mere 188 minutes of pitch time in England.
It’s not a surprise, then, that questions are starting to be asked and dissenting voices are becoming more audible. Chelsea are a big club, Mourinho is the game’s most celebrated manager, and this was a player signed for an awful lot of money.
It’s one of those opportunistic angles. Because the club are so financially well-endowed and because we’re all so envious of their ability to hand-pick talent from around the world, it’s natural to point and laugh whenever one of their transfers fails to fire.
In this instance, though, that’s a superficial – and obviously premature – judgement.
That Cuadrado isn’t yet a regular starter at Stamford Bridge means very little and Willian’s continued selection ahead of him is, for the time-being, irrelevant.
We’ve seen this from Mourinho before. Because his Chelsea side prioritise the retrieval of possession in advanced areas, there is a pronounced tactical emphasis on the front-half of the side. As a consequence, any newly-arrived attacking player with designs of one of those three advanced-midfield positions – like Cuadrado – will inevitably have to endure a learning curve before becoming a regular, trusted starter.
Ironically, Willian himself probably provided the best recent example of that. The Brazilian has become one of Mourinho’s most important tactical pieces and he is now consistently excellent without the ball, but there was a time-lag between him arriving in England from Shakhtar Donetsk and becoming a regular starter in the Chelsea side.
Cuadrado is experiencing something similar. Had he joined in August rather than January, maybe his involvement would have been greater, but this is a point of the season at which Mourinho is quite reasonably unwilling to take any risks. Chelsea have a healthy lead at the top of the Premier League, but until the title is mathematically secure, the Portuguese is unlikely to veer away from what has served up to this point.
In September and October, a manager has early league cup games and weakened European opposition to face, in March, April, and May, there’s no such luxury and the margin for error – and experimentation – is significantly narrower.
It’s worth remembering, too, that the situation Cuadrado left behind in Italy is very different to the one he walked into in England. Beyond all the accepted stylistic variations between those two leagues, there’s a big structural difference between Fiorentina and Chelsea.
He’s a very versatile player and across his career at the Stadio Artemio Franchi he occupied all manner of different roles. During his final season, however, he was utilised predominantly in a central attacking-midfield position within a 3-5-2 and, although Montella does tend to flip between a back-three and a back-four, that clearly involves a different set of tactical responsibilities to those that exist at Chelsea.
Cuadrado unquestionably has the perfect set of attributes to be hugely successful at Stamford Bridge and, more specifically, he has the defensive skill-set to be the ideal Mourinho attacking-midfielder.
The difference between theory and reality is method and instruction, though, and player and manager require a honeymoon period to adjust to one another.
That’s very much a two-way process: not only does Cuadrado have to adapt to what’s now required of him, but Mourinho needs to learn how to use a player with whom he’s never worked before. He’ll know, obviously, what his superficial strengths and weaknesses are, but fitting them into this Chelsea side without compromising any of qualities which have made them so successful requires a degree of patience.
The time for judgement, clearly, is a long way off.