Matic could prove a crucial piece in new United jigsaw
Serbian should bring the midfield stability to allow the likes of Paul Pogba to shine
Nemanja Matic signs for Manchester United at Aon Training Complex in Manchester. Photograph: Man Utd via Getty Images
Hindsight suggests it was that recognition that led, at the beginning of February 2014, to his “little horses” press conference in which he denied Chelsea were title contenders despite having pulled to within two points of the top with a 1-0 win at Manchester City.
He was lacking a genuine goalscorer and a creative presence in midfield, problems resolved by the signings that summer of Diego Costa and Cesc Fábregas, but he had already moved in January to plug the other gap by bringing Nemanja Matic back from Benfica.
Chelsea made 10 signings in 2014 but it was those three that were the most important, something that was obvious from the moment Chelsea beat Burnley in their opening game of the season. Each of the three major deficiencies the previous season had been dealt with and it is only a slight exaggeration to say that from that moment Chelsea’s title win was a procession.
Mourinho has made a habit of such clinical changes after a season at a club. Since he joined Porto in 2002, he has always won the league in his second season – at Porto, at Chelsea, at Internazionale and Real Madrid, and at Chelsea again – as though that is the happy midpoint when he has had time to organise his team but not quite had time to exhaust them with his constant political manoeuvring.
Romelu Lukaku should bring the goals United could not find against lesser sides who defended compactly last season. Victor Lindelof should add stability to the centre of a defence that clearly never satisfied Mourinho last season.
But in terms of the structure of the team, Matic may be the most important of the lot.
Mourinho has always sought a dominant presence at the back of midfield, somebody who could offer, as he himself has put it, “position, stability, control”, somebody for whom “to score a goal is a miracle but to lose a ball is also a miracle”.
At Porto he had Costinha; at Chelsea the first time Claude Makelele (and Mikel John Obi, initially a far more complete midfielder whom he tried to mould into his enforcer); at Inter Esteban Cambiasso; at Madrid Lassana Diarra or Xabi Alonso; and then Matic at Chelsea.
Last season, when Michael Carrick was unavailable, the ever-willing Ander Herrera was pressed into service in the role but he seems more naturally a shuttler, the all-rounder who can link the front and back of the team alongside a holder in the manner of Pedro Mendes, Tiago Mendes, Michael Ballack, Javier Zanetti or Ramires.
It’s a role that has a profound influence over the rest of the team. The holder serves as a breakwater in front of the central defenders, making it harder for forwards to isolate them, while keeping the shape compact and ideally leading the press. He also needs to be able to distribute, whether he is keeping the ball circulating or initiating counterattacks.
Matic ended up expendable to Chelsea because of the overwhelming excellence of N’Golo Kante, whose energy made it possible for him to perform that role and more, but he was a hugely important presence in the title season under Mourinho. He ought to offer protection to whichever pairing of Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones ends up as first choice but in the context of United’s squad, his more important influence may end up being at the other end of the pitch.
The biggest single tactical issue United faced last season was getting the best out of Paul Pogba, who had a decent season but not a season of the sort of indelible brilliance you may expect from somebody just signed for a world record fee.
He seemed always to be between roles, occasionally too high up the pitch, where he lacked the close technical abilities and guile to be effective and where his pace and stamina seemed a little wasted, or too deep, so he was always playing within himself, unable to unleash the sort of surge that had made him so effective at Juventus.
With a dedicated holding presence – and possibly Herrera as well – alongside him, Pogba should be liberated to become the dominant box-to-box player he can be.
It matters, too, that Matic is a Mourinho loyalist; his respect for his manager is apparently undimmed by what others may have taken as the humiliation of being taken off 28 minutes after coming on as a half-time substitute against Southampton in October 2015. With the odd hint that Mourinho is becoming frustrated by United’s transfer policy this summer, that could be significant in the internal politicking that tends to follow the 54-year-old to any club.
For now, though, Matic represents a classic Mourinho second-season signing, strengthening the spine, answering a specific need and, in theory at least, making it easier for others to do their jobs.