[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen Rant called Nemanja Matić “expensive” this summer the rationale was sound. After all, Chelsea had signed a French international replacement, in Tiemoue Bakayoko, who was not only younger, but cheaper as well. This is normally the formula for a reverse in the summer’s prices, with the younger player typically holding and retaining a higher value. It is all in the data. Reader pushback was strong though. The season may be just five games old, but the immediate take is clear: Rant 0 – 1 Audience.
Not sexy, never flash, with a turn of pace that is only a touch better than pedestrian, Matić rarely serves to set the pulses racing. Compared to summer alternatives, such as Monaco’s Fabinho, few Reds were actively excited about Matić’s imminent arrival.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Not sexy, never flash, with a turn of pace that is only a touch better than pedestrian, Matić rarely serves to set the pulses racing.[/blockquote]
Excitement was never the point. In Matić, Mourinho bought control, sensible but active passing, and sound defensive instincts that serve to bolster both United’s back four and the team’s attack.
After all, there was always the sense that Mourinho needed to feel secure at the back to “let the horses run freely” up front. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba have been the major beneficiaries, with the Frenchman liberated to play from box-to-box and the Armenian enjoying his new role as the team’s dynamic number 10.
The early evidence points to that analysis being spot on, with United’s free-scoring nature this term complemented – mostly – by solid defensive performances.
Mourinho always knew, of course. The manager once called Matić “a monster” after a match-winning display in a Champions League fixture at Sporting Lisbon. The manager had no doubts in the summer.
“When I joined Manchester United last year, I thought immediately that we needed a kind of Matić,” he said when the player signed in July.
“There are not many, but I was not thinking of it because I always thought I never like to go to players that I think are an impossible mission. I felt there was no chance.
“Then this season, when I got the call that Matić wants to play for me and for Manchester United, and he can make it happen, I thought he’s the perfect player for me. Not just for his qualities but also for my relationship with him.”
Five games into the campaign, the surprise is not that United will pay a maximum of £40 million for the midfielder, but that Chelsea let him go to a rival so easily. The transfer at once weakened the London side and strengthened a rival.
The Serbian has certainly hit the ground running. Matić ranks first in the Premier League for tackles attempted and won, interceptions, total passes made, successful passes, and touches. He is already the team’s heartbeat and its defensive pivot – the role Michael Carrick so effectively played for 10 seasons at Old Trafford.
This is an early take against a small sample size, of course. The evidence over more than a decade as a professional, points to a player that typically ranks highly against his peers for passing and distribution, somewhere in the middle cohort for defensive contribution and shooting, and poorly for chance creation and goalscoring.
Yet, Mourinho will be pleased with the range of qualities his new signing has demonstrated this season. Against Everton at the weekend the midfielder completed more than 90 per cent of his passes, including the assist for Antonia Valencia’s stunning opening goal. Matić also made a dozen defensive contributions as the Toffees came into the game during the second period, while the player ran around 12 kilometres in an impressive all-round display.
The contrast with former United midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin was marked, with the 27-year-old static behind the tactically ill-disciplined Wayne Rooney in Everton’s ponderous team.
Most of all, Mourinho will be pleased with the ease in which his new acquisition has integrated into United’s midfield – and the consistency of performances to date.
“He’s one of these players where there are no question marks,” Mourinho noted with some prescience back in July. “He doesn’t need time to adapt, he’s not a young guy who came from another country, he’s not somebody that needs to learn the Premier League. He’s one of these players that gives me what I like.”
There will be greater tests to come against far more dynamic midfields than United has faced to date. There is, for example, the tie against CSKA Moscow in the Russian capital in late September and a trip to Liverpool in mid-October. Tottenham Hotspur’s visit two weeks later and the visit to the player’s old stomping ground at Stamford Bridge takes place in November. Indeed, while Matić will be asked to play a subtle defensive role CSKA and Liverpool, it is the less-than-dynamic side of his game that will come under greater scrutiny in fixtures with Chelsea and Tottenham.
Matić must also take on greater responsibility now that Pogba is on the sidelines for the next few weeks. While few expect the Serbian to start breaking ahead of play, take on long-range shots, or demonstrate Pogba’s range of attacking skills, Matić may have to offer more than sound defence if Mourinho’s team is to retain its momentum over the next month or so.
There are also consequences to the new arrival’s rapid integration into the team, with last season’s Player of the Year, Ander Herrera, now largely relegated to a peripheral role. Herrera’s game is broader than that of the former Chelsea player, but it is the Spaniard’s tenacity and energy that Mourinho truly values, rather than any nominal creative contribution.
Herrera is now effectively first-reserve for Matić, and an option should Mourinho choose to deploy a 4-3-3 system as he did at Stoke. The former Athletic Bilbao player will feature in plenty of games this season, and he has been in this situation before. After all, Herrera began last season on the bench before his performances became increasingly pivotal as the season wore on, although there must be some alarm that Pogba’s absence has still not created a route back into the team.
For now the role is with Matić and the 29-year-old has unquestionably improved United’s midfield. True, the player’s age means that Matić will not replicate the decade Carrick has spent at Old Trafford. Not least because the club offered just a three-year contract. It is a quick fix; a short-term measure to solve a problem position.
In that context Matić’s £40 million capture remains a pricey piece of business, with no sell-on fee likely to be captured, and a requirement to find a replacement in the summer of 2020 probable.
Given his performances, the midfielder is also the bargain of the summer.