Why Nemanja Matic is Reinvigorating Manchester United

There seems to be something different about Manchester United this season. There has been a settled, confident atmosphere around Old Trafford this summer as the club looking real contenders for their first league title since 2013. Nemanja Matic is a big part of that change.

Of the big signings the club made this summer, the transfer of Lukaku has stolen the headlines and perhaps rightly so given his price tag and pedigree. The 24-year-old began his United career off with a bang on Sunday with two goals in a 4-0 win over West Ham, and will be crucial to how the Red Devils’ season pans out.

The thrashing of West Ham was some performance. It was full of power, purpose, pace and ruthlessness. And it certainly didn’t look like the United of last season, whose profligacy and nervousness in front of goal cost them a real title challenge. Lukaku’s finishing ability in front of goal looks to have helped.

Yet there is another key element to a potential change in Mourinho’s side this season and that is Nemanja Matic. Eyebrows were raised when United forked out £40 million for a 29-year-old who could not gain a regular spot in the Chelsea side last season. In addition, Matic was one of the worst performers towards the end of Mourinho’s second stint in charge at Stamford Bridge in 2015/16. It was easy to view the transfer as a risk.

The reality was, however, that United needed a player like him. Michael Carrick, so often the midfield enforcer, is now 36 and Marouane Fellaini has failed to convince since his £28 million move from Everton in 2013. The club lacked a player who could not only provide consistent protection for the defence but could also combine that with a strong passing ability.

As a consequence of United not having such a player, record signing Paul Pogba was criticised last season for not having enough impact from midfield. Some of the criticism may have been justified, but the Frenchman found himself having to track back and defend more often than not due to the lack of a strong defensive midfielder. It had a serious impact on the amount of time and energy he could spend in more attacking situations.

The signs are different this season, and with the addition of Matic, United’s football seems to be flowing and at a quicker pace too. True, the home side were expected to beat West Ham but the ease with which they brushed the Hammers aside looked ominous for the rest of the league.

Matic was dominant in the midfield on Sunday. He gave United reliable security in the midfield and was a presence all over the pitch. He even had more touches of the ball than any other player in the match, and it was his defensive skill which led to United’s opening goal. He came in with a well-timed challenge in midfield and released the ball quickly to start the counter-attack which led to the goal. That moment epitomised what Matic brings to this side—strong defensive qualities and composure on the ball.

Perhaps the most exciting prospect for Mourinho and United fans, though, was the increased freedom that Matic gave Pogba. The Frenchman was able to join attacks much more frequently and, as a result, gave United more options going forward. Such is the size of his price tag and his excellent ability on the ball, it is imperative that United get the best out of Pogba. Pairing Matic with their record signing should go a long way towards achieving that.

It wasn’t just Pogba who benefitted from the protection of Matic. The wide pairing of Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryian were able to focus more on their pace and creativity in attacking positions and Juan Mata was given a license to do just the same, only in more central attacking areas. Both provided assists for Lukaku as a result. Even Anthony Martial joined in on the act, scoring late on when the game was stretched.

United also chased Tottenham’s Eric Dier and Fabinho of Monaco this summer but what Matic has over both is experience. Not only has the Serb been playing regularly in the Premier League for three years, he also has two league titles to his name and knows the demands of reaching the top. It’s no wonder Mourinho called Matic a ‘monster’ during Chelsea’s 2014/15 title winning campaign. The Portuguese manager knows the qualities the midfielder brings.

Matic may not have been the marquee signing of the summer, but his addition is making a real difference on several counts. And if Mourinho brings the title back to Old Trafford in May, the is little doubt that him being reunited with his Serbian midfielder will have had a big part to play.

Main Photo
Embed from Getty Images