It’s done. Nemanja Matic has joined Manchester United where he will be reunited with former manager Jose Mourinho following a two month pursuit full of twists and turns during which Chelsea lost out on signing Romelu Lukaku.
The Belgian’s decision to chose Old Trafford over Stamford Bridge complicated negotiations for Matic, who became surplus to requirement for Antonio Conte due to the arrival of Monaco midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko. All in all, it has been an classic example of a transfer window merry-go-round.
Mourinho can now cross off another name off his wishlist – three down, one to go. He only needs a winger to complete the set.
In Lukaku he has the goalscorer to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Victor Lindelof should add class to his options at centre-back. Ivan Perisic is the wide player he wants to bring in to make it four for the summer with Matic now secured to beef up the midfield.
Four midfielders have won 200+ tackles in the Premier League since 2014/15:
V. Wanyama (211)
I. Gueye (208)
N. Kanté (206)
N. Matic (201) pic.twitter.com/Y5EF0c92Jb
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 13, 2017
However, the Serbian is a different proposition to Michael Carrick, the 36-year-old holding player that stepped in to turn United’s two-man midfield into a three last season, behind Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba. For Chelsea, he was a rangy, well-rounded destroyer, not a deep-lying water carrier like the Englishman, but maybe that’s the plan?
Part Fellaini, part Herrera
Fellaini was the other player dropped in to add an extra body alongside the two first-choice options in the middle. He even started the season as the preferred partner to Pogba in front of the defence, and surprised his doubters by completing 90% of his passes in the first five Premier League games of the season.
That accuracy with the ball was in part due to his conservatism in possession – a bluntness that only piled more pressure on the Frenchman to make something happen. Pogba became a bottleneck, shackled by this responsibility, when he needed to be allowed to roam forward and into space.
It quickly became clear that the more incisive and inventive Ander Herrera was a superior sidekick. Later in the season, Fellaini was moved forward to use his size and awkward frame in a robust role behind the attackers, returning to his previous niche as a midfield target man. In the Europa League final, Ajax simply couldn’t cope with his aerial presence and power.
Nemanja Matic is six-foot-four, roughly the same height as the Belgian, but is a more capable footballer with the ball at his feet – to some extent a cross between Fellaini and Herrera although he lacks the former’s strength in the air and the combative and creative energy of the latter.
Not a natural fit for the holding role that Carrick covers, he is arguably a superior shield for the ball and his team mates than his two new colleagues in midfield.
When he first left Chelsea back in 2011 to join Benfica in a part-exchange deal that saw David Luiz move to Stamford Bridge, he left London as a youngster making his way in the game as an attacking midfielder who could play out wide.
In Lisbon, his coaches struck upon the idea of moving Matic deeper, and he underwent a similar journey to the one that saw Bastian Schweinsteiger move inside form the flanks to become a box-to-box general at Bayern Munich under Louis van Gaal. The Serbian looks set to take the same shirt that the German wore during his two year spell with United – the number 31.
Two title-winning roles
How he will be used by Mourinho remains to be seen but this is the second time he has signed the Serbian. In January 2014, the Portuguese brought Matic back to Stamford Bridge, and in a three-and-a-half year spell he won two Premier League titles in 2015 and 2017, playing in two slightly different roles.
In his first championship-winning season, he was relied upon to do it all in midfield while Cesc Fabregas was granted the freedom to roam and create from deep. Mourinho seemed to have spotted a weakness in the English game in the middle of the pitch and he sought to exploit it by giving the former Barcelona creative license, safe in the knowledge he was well protected.
As the Spaniard moved about the pitch to receive the ball and try to find the best angle by which to slice defences with his passes, the Serbian covered the gaps, won back possession, intercepted dangers and battled for control of the game in the middle of the pitch. A year before N’Golo Kante won the plaudits for dominating games for Leicester City, Matic was doing a similar job for the Blues.
Last season, the Frenchman and the Serbian were brought together to become the dynamic duo in the middle of Conte’s 3-4-2-1 formation. While the wing-backs and the forwards pushed on, it was up to the Kante and Matic to overrun and out-muscle their opposite numbers.
The latter tended to be the player sent to push on and try to link up play between midfield and attack, using his size and physicality in the individual duels to create chances at set pieces, although in games where a bit of extra quality was required to open up a defence, Fabregas was parachuted in to take charge.
How Matic could fit in at Manchester United
For United, Matic could fill three obvious roles. He would be a less clumsy, more capable and safer upgrade to Fellaini, at least when the ball is to be played on the deck – less of a liability for giving away fouls or possession due a poor touch, but nowhere near as potent in the air.
Mourinho could send him out to rough up and unsettle opponents by providing that extra physical dimension to his team’s play from box-to-box. When the Belgian’s sharp-elbows are too much of a risk, the Serbian would be a more composed, awkward assailant to ask questions of opponents in the individual duels thanks to his reach and imposing physique.
Alternatively, he could be the bodyguard to Pogba, returning to the role he won the title with next to Fabregas. However, Herrera has already shown how effective he can be as an aid to the Frenchman, helping to ease the creative burden while putting himself about to cover for his runs, make tackles and interceptions and keep the energy levels high in the middle of the park.
Rotation will be required to compete across all fronts, especially in the Premier League and Champions League, and there should be plenty of games for both players. If Mourinho were to push Pogba forward to play as the No. 10, his two assistants could form a two-man safety net behind him.
When a midfield three is required, Matic could either try to take on Carrick’s role or allow Herrera to drop even further back to become the deep-lying cover in front of the back four. Neither the Serbian nor the Spaniard can be considered to be ideal options in the holding role. With time they could adapt.
A member of the inner circle
Perhaps most importantly – regardless of his attributes or the positions he can play – Matic is a player who has the trust of Jose Mourinho. That cannot be taken for granted. Just ask Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Luke Shaw. Even if he may not be the perfect fit to take on Carrick’s place in the team, he has the correct mentality for the Portuguese tactician, and that could be enough.
Herrera has already shown how much of a difference having the right disposition and attitude can make when playing under Mourinho. At Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid he demanded total commitment to the cause from his squad and every other department of each club, even beyond the dressing room.
Success was achieved by turning football into total war and in Matic he has a trusted lieutenant to carry out his orders on the field. No matter the inflated cost, or his age – the Serbian turned 29 on August 1 – that counts for a lot.
Get the psychology right and the rest will begin to fall into place. That is one of the central tenets of the Mourinho doctrine, and a key reason why he made signing his former enforcer such a priority this summer.