Nemanja Matic swapped Chelsea for Manchester United and the fortunes of both teams have been affected significantly by the transfer. Adam Bate examines the midfielder’s contribution and wonders whether his changing game led to Chelsea making a mistake.
Only two summer signings have featured regularly for Manchester United this season and it was Romelu Lukaku’s goalscoring feats that attracted much of the attention early on. This was despite the fact that the man whom he had replaced, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, had scored 28 goals for United last season and was even shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Year award.
Meanwhile, Chelsea’s sluggish start to their Premier League title defence was initially seen in the context of a high-profile striker change of their own. Diego Costa departed for Atletico Madrid and was replaced by fellow Spain international Alvaro Morata. Despite the new man scoring six goals and assisting three others in his nine matches, Chelsea are adrift in fourth.
Jose Mourinho insists Matic was his first-choice midfield target not Eric Dier
Perhaps then, there is a better explanation for the teams’ changes in fortunes. His name is Nemanja Matic, the Serbian midfielder who swapped Stamford Bridge for Old Trafford in a £40m deal in July. “I have the player that I want to have,” said Jose Mourinho. “Probably I have the player I didn’t think it was possible to have but we got the player I really wanted.”
Mourinho was not alone in his surprise. Matic’s move appeared to assume a life of its own – a transfer rumour made reality without anyone quite knowing why. Even Chelsea manager Antonio Conte seemed a passive actor in it all, calling it “a great loss” to wave goodbye to a midfielder who had featured in all but three of their Premier League games last season.
For his Manchester United counterpart, this was a problem solved. “I always thought he could be a perfect player for us,” Mourinho said recently. He had been looking for a Matic type. Instead, he got a reunion with the man himself. A man he called his “monster” during Chelsea’s 2014/15 procession to the title. But what exactly is it about Matic that he wanted?
“He is a player I call a stability player,” said Mourinho. A dominant presence in the centre of midfield, Matic’s loping stride can mislead because he has a rare ability to get around the pitch. In fact, the 29-year-old has covered the most ground of any Manchester United in nine of their 10 Premier League matches so far this season. That reflects his role in the side.
His job is to win back possession and allow those ahead of him to play with greater freedom. “Matic does a big job on the pitch,” Henrikh Mkhitaryan explains. “He tries to recover all the balls. Defensively, he does a big job.” Matic has recovered possession of the football on 90 occasions this season – more times than any other outfield player in the Premier League.
It is an indication that Matic has added something that United did not have. Mourinho has his midfielder controller again, a type of player he has always regarded as crucial to his teams’ success. His eyes and ears on the pitch. Someone who can cope physically and tactically. He recently described Matic as “a genius in the way he thinks” about football.
Chelsea vs Man Utd
November 5, 2017, 4:15pm
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It is tempting to wonder whether Chelsea have that player now. Cesc Fabregas’s defensive vulnerability has long been established, while Conte has also suggested that he originally envisaged young midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko being given time to learn about the Premier League as Matic’s deputy rather than being expected to control matches from the outset.
That was Matic’s role at Chelsea last season. Having been one of the top tackling midfielders in the Premier League throughout the previous three years, his numbers dipped dramatically in the title-winning campaign. Suddenly Matic was not the man breaking up the play quite so conspicuously as before. That role instead passed to N’Golo Kante.
Perhaps that contributed to the belief that Matic’s powers were waning. Certainly, there were Chelsea fans who were as content as the club’s board to take the £40m on offer for a player approaching 30. But is it possible that just as Sir Alex Ferguson had once mistaken Jaap Stam’s declining tackle numbers for decline, Matic’s importance was underestimated?
Positioning comes with experience and Matic’s ball recovery stats suggest that he is getting the job done as effectively as ever. First and foremost, it is worth noting that the Kante partnership worked. Interestingly, Mourinho has also paired Matic with a tackler – Ander Herrera making more of them per 90 minutes than any other player at a top-six club.
Time will tell, but the decision to spend much of the cash from Matic’s sale on Danny Drinkwater – a player only 18 months younger – casts further doubts on the wisdom of the move. With Mourinho mischievously suggesting recently that Matic is in the form of his career, Chelsea could be set for an uncomfortable reminder of his qualities on Sunday.