‘Whoever made the decision at Chelsea to sell Nemanja Matic to Manchester United needs sacking,’ -Phil Neville.
Matic made a £40m move north during the transfer window, and has settled in quickly at United to bring a much more balanced approach to their midfield when sat alongside Paul Pogba, who is able to venture forward much more as his Serbian teammate protects the back four.
Excitement was never the point. In Matić, Mourinho bought control, sensible but active passing, and sound defensive instincts that serve to bolster both United’s back four and the team’s attack. Matic was not sexy, never flash, with a turn of pace that is only a touch better than pedestrian, Matić rarely serves to set the pulses racing. Compared to summer alternatives, such as Monaco’s Fabinho, few Reds were actively excited about Matić’s imminent arrival.
After all, there was always the sense that Mourinho needed to feel secure at the back to “let the horses run freely” up front. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba have been the major beneficiaries, with the Frenchman liberated to play from box-to-box and the Armenian enjoying his new role as the team’s dynamic number 10.
Mourinho on the pitch
“He was an essential player because he spoke to me a great deal, and he liked to understand the practices, the whys and wherefores.”
Jose Mourinho would go on to describe Costinha as “a vital player”, one who “would convey my ideas on the pitch” as he stood on the touchline. “Costinha would basically be my ‘assistant coach’.”
They say you never forget your first. The Portuguese was speaking in late 2004 at the beginning of his rise to prominence, but success has not changed him; his love for a defensive midfielder remains as strong as ever.
At Porto it was Costinha. At Chelsea it was Claude Makelele, his “tactical leader”. At Inter Milan it was Esteban Cambiasso, “one of the fastest players I have ever coached”, but only “where speed is needed most”. At Real Madrid it was Xabi Alonso, “a coach when he is on the field”. Each were “strong”, each were “stable”, and each were the pivot around which Mourinho built his most dominant sides.
The Portuguese has afforded space in his little black book for a select few players; only once has he sought to relight the flame of a previously prosperous relationship. Nemanja Matic was the calming influence as Chelsea returned the Premier League title to Stamford Bridge in 2015. Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas were a holy trinity of attacking craft, guile and brutality, but Matic was the insurance. No teammate made more than his 3.6 tackles, 2.2 dribbles or two interceptions per game that season.
So it has proved. No United player has made more tackles (14) or interceptions (13), and Matic has attempted at least 97 more passes than any other player.
Matić must also take on greater responsibility now that Pogba is on the sidelines for the next few weeks. While few expect the Serbian to start breaking ahead of play, take on long-range shots, or demonstrate Pogba’s range of attacking skills, Matić may have to offer more than sound defence if Mourinho’s team is to retain its momentum over the next month or so. Herrera is now effectively first-reserve for Matić, and an option should Mourinho choose to deploy a 4-3-3 system as he did at Stoke. The former Athletic Bilbao player will feature in plenty of games this season, and he has been in this situation before. After all, Herrera began last season on the bench before his performances became increasingly pivotal as the season wore on, although there must be some alarm that Pogba’s absence has still not created a route back into the team.
For now the role is with Matić and the 29-year-old has unquestionably improved United’s midfield. True, the player’s age means that Matić will not replicate the decade Carrick has spent at Old Trafford. Not least because the club offered just a three-year contract. It is a quick fix; a short-term measure to solve a problem position.
Nemanja Matic : The CDM, rest all mere details
To characterise the 29-year-old as only a physical or athletic presence is unfair, but understandable. Matic is 6ft 4ins and deceptively quick but, as Mourinho once said of one of his favourite students, faster than the rest “where speed is needed most”. The Portuguese did not build sides around Cambiasso, Makelele, Costinha and Alonso because of their ability to out-muscle an opponent or win gold in a 100m race; they were signed for their speed of mind, to help unleash the talents of Samuel Eto’o and Wesley Sneijder, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, Deco and Derlei, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil.
The holding midfielder cupboards were bare when Mourinho first arrived. Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger were deemed unsavoury, while none of Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba were ever a long-term solution. Last season, Herrera made the most tackles (39), Daley Blind the most interceptions (26) and Pogba the most passes (1,043) in the Premier League as Mourinho managed to cobble together random ingredients to create an adequate dish. Matic has made an edible midfield meal delectable.
In Mourinho’s land of giants, Matic is more brain than brawn. Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are producing and performing at one end, Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Eric Bailly the other. In the middle are Matic and Pogba, with the latter relishing more freedom before his untimely injury.
Matic is Mourinho’s comfort blanket, his safety net, the one player who, by his own admission, keeps things “simple”. His comment earlier in the week that “I will be better” felt like a warning to the rest of the Premier League. If the new ‘assistant coach’ can improve on an already impressive start, Mourinho’s second season prophecy will be realised once more.
Is he the difference this season?
Answer : YES