Defensive and central midfielders are arguably the most underrated bunch of players in football. They do all the ugly work in the middle of the park, often sit deep to stop counter attacks, dictate play from the back and yet the limelight goes to the goalscorer or the defender who made that last ditch tackle.
Going back and forth between the two aforementioned positions is an even tougher ask, and something only a few players can do.
The last season heroics of N’Golo Kante, who was pivotal in Leicester’s dream season is a prime example of how important a player like that is, as fans have begun realising the significance of a true destroyer in a team. One such player who returned to the Premier League almost three years ago albeit one who has been on the receiving end of both praise and criticism is Nemanja Matic.
Brought on board by Jose Mourinho in his first season back in charge, Chelsea paid £21 million to bring back a player they had previously given away to Benfica. The move was completed in January 2014, and a few eyebrows were raised at the amount of money involved.
That was soon forgotten as on his full Premier League debut, Matic was named Man of the Match as he gave a glorious performance at the Etihad to end Manchester City’s unbeaten run at that time. The remainder of the 13-14 season went smoothly for the Serbian, as he adjusted to his new team well.
The rise and the fall
Cometh the 14-15 season, cometh the man. The importance of Matic in the middle of the park as Mourinho’s men went on to win the title was unparalleled. Jose formed a pivot as Cesc Fabregas joined the ex-Benfica man in the middle of the park to form a formidable partnership which few teams could cope with. Matic ended the season with a league winners’ and league cup winners’ medal as well as a place in the PFA Team of the Year.
He averaged 5.8 tackles, and 1.8 interceptions per game in eight Champions League matches, and 3.6 tackles, 2 interceptions and 3.3 clearances per game throughout the Premier League season, which is stunning to say the very least. Even his passing percentage was absolutely brilliant as he was successful in completing 88% of the passes he attempted.
A strong defensive presence as well as a physical threat going forward, Matic did the role of a proper destroyer full justice. Considering the fact that Chelsea kept 12 clean sheets when Matic started and his importance in shielding the defence, his impact was unmatched.
In the 2015-16 season, Chelsea fell. Mourinho seemed to have lost the plot, PFA Player of the Season Eden Hazard couldn’t find the back of the net, and Diego Costa looked like all of his energy had been drained. Despite the loss of Hazard’s flair and Costa’s aggression, perhaps Chelsea’s biggest loss on the field was the influence that Matic exerted.
In the league winning season the Serbian was well positioned to stop an attack and give the ball forward for his teammates to do the rest, and his physical and commandeering presence was part of the reason why Chelsea enjoyed so much fluidity in their play - that vanished.
Matic looked clueless in the middle, his partnership with Fabregas had gone absolutely stale, and the man who used to break down attacks so calmly last season looked like a shadow of his former self. Due to this, Chelsea’s defensive frailties were exposed, something that had gone unnoticed due to Matic’s prowess.
In 14-15 he was a guard that protected the gates from siege; in 15-16 was a lion who had forgotten how to roar. Chelsea kept losing clean sheet after clean sheet, and the lack of goals on the other side meant that the season was the complete opposite of their previous one. The ex-Benfica man had a season to forget.
The resurgence and reinvention
With the arrival of Antonio Conte and N’Golo Kante in the summer, the midfielder was given a ray of hope to get back on his feet - provided he could reinvent himself. Conte’s teams are known to be defensively solid while highly competent on the counter attack. The Italian won his first three games in England, and although Chelsea hit a hiccup in the middle of the road, the team found their form, and now sit top of the league.
Kante’s inclusion in the squad meant Matic could play as a central midfielder rather than the role he had excelled AND failed in the past two seasons. He started focusing more on going ahead and finding the right passes, leaving the grunt work to Kante.
While in his best season with Chelsea he boasted of the impressive number of tackles and defensive stats of the sort, this season Matic has already given six assists to his teammates - more than the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Mesut Ozil. Only Kevin De Bruyne with seven assists to his name leads him in this aspect. Matic also has the seventh most passes in the league.
In Conte’s 3-5-2 formation, Kante is doing the work he did so brilliantly for Leicester, while Matic has successfully reinvented himself in a new role. Not exactly similar to how he and Fabregas used to line up a couple of seasons ago, but the Serb has the freedom to venture forward and get more involved in the play - something he did not have under Mourinho and Hiddink.
That strategy has yielded results, as Matic’s eye for a good pass is being used here. He also holds the ball very well (it is not easy to take the ball away from a 6 feet 4-inch giant), which in turn allows his teammates to make tempting runs.
Similar to two seasons ago, Hazard and Costa are at their frightening best as Matic goes under the limelight again. Granted that Kante’s inclusion in the team has helped him a lot, but it is not easy to change your style of play from a defensive midfielder to a more than competent central midfielder who stands tall at the foot of some great attacks.
All this is made even better knowing that when push comes to shove, he will be able to hold his own when the opposition run towards Chelsea’s goal, a trait that Conte wants from his players.
While Fabregas is on the bench, the versatility, physical presence and the immense work rate of Matic ensures his place in Conte’s starting XI. It is about time that his importance to Conte’s team is noted and he is given the praise he so deserves.
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