Nemanja “Monster” Matic : Already looks like steal of the summer

‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Phil Jones : The Tragicom king

“Exclusive! Water is wet! Grass is green! The world is round!” 

Statements of a similar ilk greeted the news that Phil Jones has suffered yet another injury and now making a comeback. This time around the Manchester United defender is out with a Toe injury that will see the Lancastrian making a comeback this saturday.

If 2014/15 was a frustrating season for Jones, this campaign has been an unmitigated disaster. Illness in August, September and October, muscle injury in November and December, ankle injury in January, February, March and April. Forty-six minutes in all competitions so far in 2016. This has been a year of changes for Manchester United.  Jose Mourinho admitted that even he did not expect Romelu Lukaku’s prolific introduction to life at Old Trafford; Anthony Martial looks a different player to the one seemingly carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders last term; Ander Herrera has gone from potential captain to fourth-choice central midfielder. But perhaps the most unexpected sub-plot in United’s story so far has been the outstanding contribution of Phil Jones.

No one has played a greater role in United’s rock-solid start to the campaign. Mourinho’s machine has kept five clean sheets in six games, and though both Jones and his partner, Eric Bailly, had an off day during the 2-2 draw at Stoke, Jones in particular made amends with a man-of-the-match performance during the 1-0 win at Southampton.

Mourinho in August said

“If we manage to have him safe, protected from injuries, I think potentially he’s everything I like in a central defender,”

The United boss certainly knows what he likes in a centre-back. His greatest successes have been built around solid foundations provided by the likes of  John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marco Materazzi, Walter Samuel, Gary Cahill – all outstanding centre-halves in the traditional sense. The fact they can use the ball is a bonus to Mourinho. Winning it will always remain the priority.

Jones offers the kind of balance Mourinho appreciates. The England international is the most rounded centre-half at his disposal and the statistics back up the eyewitness testimonies that Jones has been one of United’s shining lights.

Mourinho hinted, there is always a caveat with Jones. Fitness, not form, has always been his greatest weakness. Under four different managers, Jones has been injured and unavailable for 25 per cent of his six-plus years at Old Trafford, causing him to miss 101 matches in the process. In terms of Premier League appearances, Juan Mata, who joined United two and a half years after Jones, trails the defender by only 11 games. David de Gea, who arrived at Old Trafford at the same time as Jones, has 78 more league matches to his name – more than two full seasons’ worth.

In recent years Jones’ name has been synonymous with the treatment room, a Darren Anderton for modern times. According to transfermarkt.com, the former Blackburn Rovers player has suffered 14 different injuries since he moved to United in 2011. To break it down he’s been out with knee problems, sprained ankles, shoulder injuries, shin splints, malleolar issues, concussion, back troubles and thrombosis for good measure.

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The statistics are quite sobering. The defender has effectively missed over two league campaigns worth of matches and spent well over a year on the sidelines. Unfortunately for Jones he remains a figure who’s all too easy to mock, from the faces he pulls, to the sheer ungainliness of his defending, such as his party piece against Olivier Giroud

Mourinho, though, said in his first press conference as United boss that he “likes specialists, not multi-functional players”. In Jones’ case, the manager has been true to his word. All of his appearances have come at the heart of Mourinho’s defence, aside from one occasion when he was asked to come off the bench at Rostov to do a job in midfield for the closing stages.

Last season, after Jones admitted that Louis van Gaal didn’t seem to trust him, he benefited from consistency of selection to form a formidable partnership alongside Marcos Rojo, playing 10 Premier League games out of 11 through the latter part of 2016 before injury inevitably struck.

Gareth Southgate has been equally impressed. As he said

“He’s got very good composure on the ball. He’s got the reading of the game, he’s aggressive in his defending – which I like – and I think he has got fantastic experience, although he is still only relatively young.”

Many forget that Jones is still just 25 years old, which is testament to the fact he has been around the Premier League for seven-and-a-half years and the England team for six. In that time, he has become more known to many for pulling funny faces and THAT header on the floor, which itself demonstrated the type of desire to defend that many modern centre-halves appear to lack. But with his blend of experience and potential, Jones has to be taken seriously as first choice for club and country. The only worry is whether his body will allow him.

Is Phil Jones stealing a living, or is he a luckless soul who needs fortune to favour him for once? There are many debates to be had about Jones’ value to United, or lack thereof, but one thing is plainly clear, his injury problems is clearly no laughing matter any more.

Maybe this Red Devil deserves more sympathy than he’s used to receiving.

 

 

Manchester United’s graveyard of Potential

There are few things more exciting than watching a youngster showcase sky-high potential. Take Monaco’s latest prodigy, Kylian Mbappé, who injected fresh interest into the Champions League last season – a competition that has become stale in recent years given the domination of the continent’s biggest clubs, including Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus. Young players bring unpredictability and excitement. Few outside France knew of the Frenchman’s talent before he burst onto the scene at the turn of the year. They know him now.

Opposition teams could not plan for Mbappé as they had little prior knowledge. First, Mbappé showcased his exquisite finishing. Then came the turn of pace. As Mbappé’s confidence grew he begin to demonstrate those brilliant touches of skill that took everyone by surprise. The youngster may have been perceived as a poacher, but by the end of the season he was viewed as one of the most complete footballers in the competition, at the tender age of 18.

Manchester United, of course, is no stranger to blooding talented youngsters. The world-renown Class of 92 stands apart as one of the most extraordinary narratives in modern football. Never before – and given football’s globalization probably never again – had six footballers matured together to help their boyhood club win the ultimate prize: a Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup treble in 1999. For that story alone, United commands an aura of respect for giving youth a chance.

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Nostalgia is beautiful. Unfortunately, the club hasn’t been able to replicate that since the class of 92. While the academy continues to produce talent, the club has failed to build on young promise in recent years. There is no longer a regular stream of players making it to the first team. Just two weeks back, United announced that Josh Harrop will be joining Preston North End when his contract expires at the end of the month. Harrop leaves having scored a beautiful solo goal versus Crystal Palace on his club debut on the last day of the season, but his chances of making the first team permanently are limited.

Perhaps, more pointedly, Adnan Januzaj is off to Real Sociedad in an attempt to relight his career after years of stalled progress. The Belgian youngster burst onto the scene as one of the only bright spots in David Moyes’ disastrous season at the club. Louis van Gaal distrusted the mercurial winger and then Borussia Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel expressed public disappointment with the player’s attitude and sent him back to Manchester. It should have been the perfect opportunity to develop at one of the world’s most youth-friendly clubs. Frustration, anger, and a touch of sadness describe the emotions felt about a player who many believe holds the natural ability to reach the top. It just won’t be at United.

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The broader picture is not positive either. Januzaj is far from alone as a promising youngster that has failed to make it at United. The list of highly talented players to have left with talent unfulfilled is too long for a club that has lacked exceptional quality since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. United’s results declined only after Ferguson’s retirement, but the youthful talent pool had dried up long before the Scot called it a day. In the past five years alone, Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba, Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly, Tyler Blackett, and Paddy McNair each offered United fans a glimpse of talent, yet all left with a sense of potential unfulfilled. Even youthful acquisitions such as Wilfried Zaha, Nick Powell and Memphis Depay departed having failed to turn talent into performances.

This is not all on the club, of course. Many factors play into development and progress of talent, many of which are out of United’s control. Morrison’s personal issues, for example, made it seemingly impossible for the player to dedicate the required focus on his career. Pogba has proven to be Ferguson’s most costly misjudgement, and with hindsight, maybe the hype afforded to Macheda, Cleverly, Welbeck, Blackett and McNair was unjustified.

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Yet, there is also a sense that with the right coaching at least some of these players could have progressed to reach the standards they were once touted to possess. Zaha, for example, was not afforded the chance to showcase his mercurial talents despite the £15 million fee. United fans might look at the player’s outstanding season at Crystal Palace as an opportunity missed. Powell and Depay were each accused of demonstrating a poor attitude, although if the former is able to focus and the latter carries on his good form for Lyon, United may rue not holding a little more patience.

The result is a graveyard of youthful potential. There are too many ‘what ifs’ – players discarded to the wind when the excitement of youth was exactly what the club needed. Today, supporters are right to be concern that youngsters such as Marcus Rashford and Antony Martial might not fulfil their potential at the club. Each enjoyed superb seasons under Van Gaal, but neither truly built on those foundations during Jose Mourinho’s first campaign at the club. The duo enjoyed ample game time last season, but there is a sense that Mourinho’s more conservative tactics have stunted the pair’s growth. Potential is not yet lost, but neither enjoyed featuring on the left wing and being asked to perform defensive duties even if it is beneficial to the team. If Mourinho captures Alvaro Morata, neither will appear at number nine much next season either.

 

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In more defensive areas, Mourinho can choose from a plethora of talented youngsters waiting for a chance. Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Axel Tuanzebe, Luke Shaw, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Guillermo Varela have each offered assured performances for the senior team. Fosu-Mensah looks like the beefy, all-action defensive midfielder that the team has lacked in recent years, while Tuanzebe epitomised composure when he was thrown into Mourinho’s first team plans towards the end of the season. Shaw is a complicated case, but his ability is unquestionable. Shaw will hope that Mourinho places more trust in the former Southampton player, although that trust may only come with the hard work his manager demands.

Borthwick-Jackson and Varela looked like capable attacking full-backs under van Gaal’s tutelage, although with so many options in front of them it seems unlikely that either will make the senior squad in the coming season. Departure is likely.

Mourinho has much to do if he is to dispel the assumption that he fails to give youth a chance. Last season Rashford, Martial, Shaw, Tuanzebe, and Fosu-Mensah enjoyed time in the first team. Mourinho offered more minutes to teenagers than any other manager in the Premier League, albeit a stat skewed by Rashford’s impact. Yet, none is guaranteed first choice for the coming campaign.

The sense that Mourinho’s conservative ideology hinders talented youngsters persists. Few will argue that the Portuguese prefers the fickle world of potential – one that can be full of surprises, good and bad – to proven talent and experience.

Still, the current crop of youngsters at United is more exciting than in recent years. Now the club and manager needs to find the right environment to stimulate that talent.

 

Jose Mourinho and the art of Pragmatism

Some Manchester United’s more cynical fans let out a sigh of dismay when Cristiano Ronaldo announced that he was no longer happy at Real Madrid, after accusations of tax fraud unsettled the superstar. Few enjoy the tedium of a summer transfer saga, it creates uncertainly, and United fans have been offered false hope too often in recent years. Some fans cling to the hope that the Ronaldo will once again grace Old Trafford; plenty felt an anxious twang of déjà vu this week.

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After all, David Moyes’ first transfer window was dominated by talk of Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford. In that same window United reportedly made moves to acquire Thiago Alcântara, Gareth Bale, Cesc Fàbregas and Toni Kroos. Yet, come transfer deadline day on 1 September 2013, United had made just one signing, Marouane Fellaini. Even then, the club botched the move by failing to activate the midfielder’s release clause a month earlier – it would have saved £4 million on the £27.5 million Ed Woodward shelled out.

In more recent times, United’s vice chairman has enjoyed reason to be smug with the capture of genuine top class talent such as Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Eric Bailly. Last summer’s acquisitions brought the lot: stardom, potential, flair, arrogance, but, most importantly, quality the team actually required.

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Bailly shored up a defence that was lacking in brawn. Ibrahimović brought goals and a sense of arrogance that had been sorely lacking under the toothless, stuttering guidance of Moyes and Louis van Gaal. United’s purchase of Pogba added world-class flair, and Mkhitaryan raised the quality of United’s attacking interchanges, many of which had become blunted and directionless after the soulless possession football that had come before. There were improvements across the team, as should be expected from the extraordinary amount of money offered up by Woodward’s office.

Last summer was an exception, not the norm. United’s aura under David Gill’s leadership, of a shrewd club that bought within its means to maintain a level of brilliance has diminished. Moyes’ single season was the catalyst – a 7th place Premier League finish highlighted that the squad needed an overhaul to keep up with the country’s top teams.

The reaction has been to throw money at anyone that might be emblematic of success. United has posted a record transfer fee for a teenager, Luke Shaw, and then broken the British transfer record with the purchase of Ángel Di Marίa. Radamel Falcao was also brought in on an extraordinary loan deal to add more fire power up front. Of that trio, only Shaw has remained for more than one year, and even the talented youngster has found it much more difficult than many expected to make himself a regular starter.

Of that same window, it is the less shiny acquisitions that now hold more sway in José Mourinho’s dressing room. Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Ander Herrera arrived to muted fanfares. The former pair can reasonably claim to have enjoyed a strong first season under Mourinho, while the Spaniard picked up the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year. In fact, the only Galactico-style player to arrive under Woodward and showcase his immense talent is Anthony Martial. It lasted just a year, with the Frenchman suffering an under-par second season at the club, leading to speculation about his future.

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It leaves the conclusion that the relative effectiveness of United’s 2016 summer transfer window was not of Woodward’s doing, but that of Mourinho. Players were not bought for the sake of excitement, but with a clear role in the squad. It gave the team a new dimension.

United’s sixth-place Premier League  finish was below the result Mourinho’s side should have achieved, but victory in the EFL Cup and Europa League have put the club back into an elite bracket. The truest success of Mourinho was not extracting the best out of the superstars at the club, but elevating the performances of those squad players who would have been deemed average a year ago. Herrera is the most prominent example, but Antonio Valencia, Jessie Lingard, Sergio Romero, Rojo, and even Matteo Darmian have exhibited their importance to the team. If the past three years have taught any lesson, it is that crowbarring supreme talent into the team for the sake of reflected glory does not lead to success. Winning teams must be crafted with a level of pragmatism that only the very best can muster.

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In recent weeks fans have taken to social media to vent frustration at the purportedly “mediocre” players Mourinho wishes to bring in this summer. The acquisition of young Swedish centre back, Victor Lindelöf, drew little excitement due to his lack of perceived status. Yet, the player’s calmness under pressure and ability to play the ball out from the back offers further quality to one of the tightest defences in last season’s Premier League.

Should United capture Alvaro Morata – a deal that appeared to be close until Ronaldo threw Real Madrid’s transfer policy into disarray – and the rumoured offer for Ivan Perišić, give an indication of the type of players that Mourinho wants to sign. Neither is the superstar that will alone catapult United to Champions League success, but each is of proven quality and would add diversity to United’s squad. Morata is a goal-scoring number nine, something Mourinho desperately needs after Ibrahimović’s injury and subsequent release. Perišić is a two footed winger who has put up decent goal and assist numbers for an Inter Milan, a side that has otherwise significantly underperformed.

Likewise, Nemanja Matić and Eric Dier have been identified as targets to plug the enforcer-shaped-hole in United’s squad. The reaction to these rumours have again been grumbles of discontent – that squad filler may mean that United will not be able to once again claim to be the best team in the country. Indeed, a quick temperature check says that Monaco’s Brazilian fullback-turned-holding-midfielder, Fabinho, is the fans’ choice.

Yet, it would surely be short-sighted to rule the signing of Matić or Dier a disappointment. The Serbian destroyer has been integral to Chelsea’s two Premier League titles in the last three years, while Dier has consistently started for a Tottenham Hotpsur side that has amassed more points than any other team over the past two years.

Either way, whether these rumours are real or not, there is a truth to the observation that United does not need more Galactico signings, but something more pragmatic. Mourinho has assessed that his squad is talented enough to do battle with best in England, as evidenced be the Portuguese’s tactical victory over the eventual champions, Chelsea, towards the end of the season. Tweaks are needed, but an overhaul is not.

Fans may clamour for Ronaldo, but the likelihood is that Madrid’s politics will eventually win out and the forward will stay in the Spanish capital. Mourinho’s targets are tailored for his team, and his previous success in the transfer window should offer more than enough credit. Woodward should be wary of chasing unavailable dreams. Ronaldo or not, Mourinho has a plan.

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