Why Nemanja Matic is Manchester United's most important signing
In Jose Mourinho’s first summer as manager of Manchester United, he spent nearly £130m, acquiring the services of four players. All four players -- as the season progressed -- became integral members of the squad, proving to be worthy acquisitions by the Portuguese.
Paul Pogba was the most creative central midfielder in the Premier League, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were United’s top goalscorers in that order, and Eric Bailly has already shown that he can become one of the finest defenders in England with a number of stand-out performances.
There is evidently a methodical manner of approaching the window from Mourinho, replacing and upgrading areas of the squad over a period of time rather than dismantling the squad in its entirety, selling for spare parts and rebuild a new one. As Mourinho attempts to emulate the success of his previous transfer window, the strengthening has been done in very similar areas the following summer.
Victor Lindelof was purchased from SL Benfica for a reported £31m, and is more of an unknown quantity with huge potential. The Swede made his name in Portugal as a smart ball playing centre-half and was nicknamed ‘The Iceman’ for his composure on the ball. Should he adapt to his new home, he has the potential to complement Eric Bailly. At 22 and 23 respectively, the two can form a long-term partnership at the heart of the defence.
Romelu Lukaku became United’s second most expensive purchase after Paul Pogba for a reported £75m fee. The Belgian was snatched from under Chelsea’s noses when his return to his former club was seemingly all but sealed.
He’s 24, has scored more than 80 league goals in the Premier League and standing at 6’3”, has the stature to match that of his predecessor Zlatan Ibrahimovic. United’s former No.9 was prolific despite his physical immobility. Lukaku managed to out-pace runners such as Hector Bellerin at the Emirates, to put his mobility in context.
The third signing, though, could very well end up being the most important signing of all, is Nemanja Matic. And there are a number of reasons as to why so.
There is a strange misconception about Nemanja Matic after the role he played under Conte, as he’d become more of a deep-lying playmaker in the side. The Serbian is a classic example of a No.6, whose job is to screen the back four and sniff out attacks in his half. His passing is not all that expansive and he uses the ball judiciously.
He was more traditionally accustomed to playing in front of four-man-defences at Chelsea until Conte arrived at Stamford Bridge. The Italian’s change to his preferred three-man-defence from the second half of a 3-0 battering by Arsenal won him the English title. But this meant that Matic had to play a role alien to him, often resulting in him being in awkward positions higher up the pitch.
The bigger problem was the arrival of Leicester City’s ‘Bulldog’ N’Golo Kante. Kante is statistically the best ball winner in the league alongside Everton’s Idrissa Gueye, and naturally Chelsea’s primary destroyer. This essentially meant a large part of Chelsea’s creative burden fell on the former Benfica man, who notched 7 assists while playing out of position.
At Manchester United, Matic will presumably be the first defensive midfielder in the pecking order. Michael Carrick could play in a tuxedo, but having turned 36, he does not have the legs to do so week in week out. One of the things that make him so vital to United is his long-spanning experience. And he’s one of the only few players at Old Trafford that have won the title.
It is this valuable experience that Matic will bring to his new club. Matic has been part of both the title-winning Chelsea squad in the last three years and has a wealth of experience in the Premier League. He will be vital should United launch an assault on the title.
Mourinho's circle of trust
The most intriguing part of this transfer is Jose Mourinho.
When Matic was presented as a United player, these were Mourinho’s words:
"Nemanja is a Manchester United player and a Jose Mourinho player. He represents everything we want in a footballer; loyalty, consistency, ambition, team player”.
The Portuguese has an ‘inner circle’ of people he trusts. He values trust and loyalty in his players more than most, for which the primary example is Rui Faria, his assistant from his Porto days.
Mourinho has a history of working with players at more than one club. He worked with players such as Ricardo Carvalho, Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Lassana Diarra at more than one club, and now Matic becomes the 14th addition to this list.
Attaining Matic was Mourinho’s first choice, and it isn’t hard to see why, although the Serbian’s age (he turns 29 this month) and a doubt as to whether he can breach his performance levels of 2014/15 do linger. Presumably, it was this experience and the credentials to help turn things to his favour. He knows exactly how Mourinho plays and vice versa.
Also, the fact that this squad is one of Jose Mourinho’s youngest squads in terms of average age, which is just under 27 years prior to Matic’s arrival. He is by no means a long-term solution to United’s midfield but is a necessity in order to obtain the balance that Mourinho strives for.
This could be the reason that the former Chelsea boss picked his trusted enforcer over other potential candidates such as Fabinho, Eric Dier and Radja Nianggolan (the Belgian’s arrival would push Herrera into the no.6 role).
The biggest beneficiary of this transfer is undoubtedly Paul Pogba. Pogba’s best football came as part of a three-man midfield in Juventus, featuring two of Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal. Translating those terms to the Premier League, his form identically peaked with the introduction of Carrick into the XI. A midfield three of Matic, Herrera and Pogba would benefit the world’s most expensive player, as it will the team’s attacking output.
There is also a certain tactical flexibility that Matic will provide to United. When Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera play in a two-man midfield, there are often times that both the players find themselves higher up the pitch and potentially leave the defence vulnerable to counter attacks.
Herrera is one of the best central midfielders in the league and boasts excellent defensive contribution as well. But the Spaniard is at his absolute best when given the license to play his more favoured role as an all action central midfielder who has a knack of joining the attack.
Matic can enable the tactician in Mourinho to tinker and set his team up differently for a specific opposition, knowing that there is a trusted player anchoring the midfield. He brings in steel and power into the middle third. Matic and Cesc Fabregas were at the heart of the 2014/15 title winning squad, primarily playing in a 4-2-3-1 alongside the World Cup winner.
Turning 29 this week, he is the finished article and complements the existing talents beautifully. Standing at 6’4”, the Serbian even fits the physical profile that Manchester United have extensively looked for, with only one of the last 7 signings standing at below 6 feet.
When asked about Jose Mourinho during Matic's first official interview, he told MUTV: "I am very happy because we will work again together. He is a great coach and, when I worked with him before, he always took the best from me and I improve if I work with him, so I am very happy to be again with him, especially in this great club so I am happy because of that."
If his beloved Portuguese can help him discover the form he hit during the 14/15 season, United will be a force to be reckoned with. He’s not glamorous, but he will be the most risk-free and guaranteed performer in the English top flight.