What a difference a year (and a half) can make.
As Manchester United prepare to play Derby County in the FA Cup, the tie will be uniquely significant for one of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s players. Back in September 2018, Nemanja Matic played all 120 minutes as Manchester United were held 2-2 by Derby County. It was not a good performance for the player or the team. The Serb then scored in the penalty shootout but United crashed out anyway.
In terms of performance, Matic had never been lower in a United shirt. He was always slow to pass it forward but by this point he looked like he was running through treacle, all whilst hungover. He was never taken out of the XI, but his performances were utterly abysmal.
Even with the considerable ‘new manager bounce’ that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s arrival provided later in that year, Matic never really excelled with the rest of his team-mates. The Norwegian’s style hid Matic’s flaws and the side was able to essentially carry him through to the end of the season, though it’s telling that he was absent for the victory in Paris, the high-point of Solskjaer’s first season.
Nemanja Matic Football Index value February 2019: £0.26 (Buy)
He began 2019/20 on the bench, barely playing except for the odd Europa League group game, then he picked up an injury. In his absence, Scott McTominay and Fred rose to prominence and they looked like establishing themselves as the starting midfield duo. With Matic’s contract expiring at the end of this current season, one didn’t expect much from him during the rest of the campaign except for the odd cameo here and there. He’d be squad meat, essentially, there to bulk things out but not really someone Solskjaer wanted to call on.
But then Scott McTominay got injured. Panic!
With Paul Pogba also out injured and Andreas Pereira simply not up to the task, Matic has been thrust back into the line-up alongside Fred, but unlike 2018/19 and especially unlike that Derby game, Matic has actually been performing well.
Nemanja Matic Football Index value January 2020: £0.41 (Buy)
Now, it’s not like he has turned into the reincarnation of Roy Keane or anything, so some perspective should be applied here. But where in 2018/19 he had looked slow of mind and slow of foot, now he is playing sharp passes at relative speed and defending space quite well.
Even the one truly bad moment he’s had since returning; the red card against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup, was a momentary lapse of judgement that blotted what was an otherwise excellent performance — where he scored the game-winning goal.
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Since getting the call just after Boxing Day, Matic has played 14 games out of a possible 16 across all competitions, missing only the 0-0 draw with Wolves at Old Trafford and the 5-0 second-leg win over Club Brugge in the Europa League.
In those 14 games he has been so solid that there is talk United may actually trigger the one-year extension clause in his contract, ensuring he sticks around until 2021. Matic has gone from castaway to one of the most reliable members of this United side, as Solskjaer’s men have re-found their defensive steel, keeping six clean sheets in the last eight games.
Nemanja Matic Football Index value February 2020: £0.35 (Sell) – £0.37 (Buy)
With McTominay now fit again, the Serb’s minutes may dip, but he won’t disappear again now that Solskjaer knows he can be relied upon. So, for the first time in what seems like forever, United have actual midfield depth. Matic’s ability to rotate with Fred and McTominay is going to be huge as United hunt down fourth place and try to win the FA Cup and Europa League.
Now, there should be some caution here. Obviously 14 games is a small sample size to look at, and there’s always a chance Matic is only playing well because he is in the shop window. But it can’t be denied that in a summer where United will have to spend big on multiple positions, retaining Matic does give them a cheap stopgap so they don’t have to look at a specialist defensive midfielder until next summer.
For his part, Matic seems open to staying; “I’ve got a contract until the end of the season,” he has said. “I’m at Carrington every day and open to talks if they think I can help, but if not life will go on. No discussions have happened yet, but my position is clear.”
For all the flak, there can be no denying that Matic is a solid veteran who has won two Premier League titles with Chelsea. He knows what it takes to get over the line, and has experience that could prove valuable to United’s young stars, as Solskjaer’s men look to re-establish themselves as a relevant force in English football. A task made that much easier by Nemanja Matic’s Red Devil renaissance.
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