Why Nemanja Matic, and not Paul Pogba, is the main man at Manchester United this year
Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan. They may be the big money signings, and more glamorous on the field, but it’s Nemanja Matic who deserves the headlines at Manchester United this season.
Signed for an initial £35 million from Chelsea, the Serbian has become the unsung hero in United’s prolific start to the season. His beginnings at United have been so impressive in fact, that comparisons to club legend Roy Keane have been made. It’s not difficult to understand why either.
Matic has hit the ground running since joining United over the summer, becoming the final signing for Mourinho before the transfer deadline. The Portuguese was looking for some balance in his midfield, a spine of sorts, so that others such as Pogba and Mkhitaryan could showcase their talents more.
The move has worked splendidly on all fronts, with Pogba particularly coming to life. Before his unfortunate injury, the Frenchman was finally showing exactly why United paid an at-the-time world record fee for his services.
The Serb touched on the pairing he has with his enigmatic teammate too.
“I think we play together very well. We help each other. I have to say he played good in attack and also helped a lot when we were defending. He always played next to me. We are there on the pitch to fight for each other. We will continue like this and I’m happy to have him in the team.”
Pogba may be getting the acclaim, and has his name in lights at last, but Matic craves none of that. A typical Mourinho player, he simply clocks in at work, does his job, and then clocks out with no one noticing he’s gone home.
It’s this sort of understated but vital presence that United have lacked for a number of years now, which has found them wanting at various levels - not just the elite UEFA Champions League.
With Michael Carrick on the decline, a figure at the base of the midfield has been required for some time, and while Matic doesn’t possess the passing range of Carrick or ability to construct from deep, he’s able to serve a vital purpose in Mourinho’s team.
His simple, efficient play from deep is vital in the ball reaching Pogba and then Mkhitaryan further up the pitch. Matic too, has the ability to drive forward and situate himself further up the field.
It gains United serious ground in games, and by pushing them further up the pitch, it allows Mourinho’s team to dominate with ease.
No one rates the player higher than Mourinho, who has referred to the 29-year-old as one of ‘my guys’.
“He needs time but [his] experience, intelligence, a genius in the way he thinks - he thinks football,”
Mourinho said during pre-season, as Matic immediately began to bed in at the club with seemingly few difficulties.
The Portuguese has gone on to label him ‘a genius’ and declared him to be ‘one of the best footballers I’ve ever worked with’. Given the calibre of players Mourinho’s worked with over the years including stints at Real Madrid and Inter, it’s high praise indeed.
Of course, it’s the defensive qualities of Matic that have caught the eye however though. With United still in transition across their defence, the security net of Matic is a welcome one. His ability to read the game, snuff out danger, and still provide mobility across the midfield despite not being particularly rapid, has become a cornerstone feature of United’s impressive start.
In the Premier League, they remain unbeaten and have conceded just the three goals.
While it’s only the beginning, the signs are extremely positive for Matic and United as a whole. He’s a player teams are built around, and upon. If not for him others couldn’t play to their strengths.
Last season, United lacked energy, power and grit all across the team. Now, having signed several physically imposing players, they are a different beast. Matic is one of those players and it’s easy to see why there is a more positive feeling around the club given he’s working hard in the engine room.
It’s hard to fathom how United survived for so long without someone such as Matic, or even his ilk. At least now, however, they have the real thing.