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After a long summer of speculation, briefing and counter-briefing, Manchester United captured their third major acquisition to their squad on 31st July, for the princely sum of £40 million. In any language, and in any walk of life, that represents a significant investment. However, in the context of this summer’s insane transfer market, the transfer fee actually appears completely reasonable.
To summarise that context, football is now awash with money, and astronomical fees that used to be reserved for international superstar strikers are being splashed out on young players who have demonstrated a glimpse of potential. In the last 2 seasons, we’ve seen larger amounts splurged on flops such as Granit Xhaka, Eliaquim Mangala, John Stones, and Raheem Sterling. Kyle Walker, a superb athlete and average footballer, has commanded a fee in excess of £50 million, as has the relatively unproven Benjamin Mendy, City’s new left back. Neymar Jr is worth more than the GDP of some medium-sized countries.
Therefore, despite the fee, the consensus is that Matic arrives with a justifiable price tag, which likely will lessen the burden of expectation. It is a surprise that Chelsea have willingly let him go, essentially signing 22-year-old France international Tiemoue Bakayoko as a direct replacement for the same fee. They have replaced proven quality and solidity with a younger, more mobile upstart.
As a fan, it is hard to describe my thoughts over the signing of Matic. Overwhelmingly I think it is a good, and necessary addition to the squad. He is the type of player the side was crying out for last season, and has attributes that can only benefit this team; but he is not glamorous. Last year, I asked my wife what she wanted for her birthday, and suggested getting her a new Dyson vacuum cleaner. We badly needed one, and she acknowledged that. It certainly wasn’t cheap, but it’s not what you want to wake up to as your special treat. It is functional, a necessary component to the upkeep and maintenance of a household. Nemanja Matic is that new Dyson.
I don’t say that as a criticism, it’s just that he isn’t exciting, not to the fan at least. I get the impression Jose Mourinho positively delighted with him, as he knows the importance of achieving balance in his midfield. After the signing was announced, he described him as a “team player” who has “everything we want in a footballer: loyalty, consistency, ambition”. In fact, a few days later he described him as “a genius in the way he thinks”. To describe him as a team player is entirely accurate. He does have limitations in terms of his range and variety of passing, and in his mobility. However, he is a player in the Mourinho mould. At 6 feet 4 inches tall, he is a dominant physical presence, and is the latest in a line-up of towering hulks brought to the club by Mourinho.
Matic does the simple things well, and facilitates other players to indulge their superior abilities further up the pitch. Last season he had the highest pass completion rate of any midfielder in the Premier League. This illustrates both that he is competent in possession, but also suggests that his passing is generally safe, and aimed at retention. This if the function he has been bought for – to protect the defence, and play simple passes to the creative influences of Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera alongside him. That being said, he did manage an impressive total of 7 assists for Chelsea last season, which is more than any Manchester United player amassed. He is more often the player who provides the pass before the assist.
Club captain Michael Carrick has signed on for another year, but it is difficult to foresee both him and Matic in the same side as they occupy similar positions. Matic is certainly not a like for like replacement, as over the last 11 years, Michael Carrick has been a playmaker, dictating the speed of play and demanding the ball in the guise of a quarter back. Matic is a cog to help a team function. His primary function is in a defensive capacity.
The main assumption in the media following his arrival is that it will free up Paul Pogba to play with more reckless abandon, and I think this is accurate. Pogba is not, at least to this point in his career, tactically or positionally disciplined. Having Matic fulfil an almost exclusively defensive function should help him to roam the field with unpredictable variety. This could see him reach the attacking potential that the club was hoping for when splashing out the now-reasonable world record fee to bring him back to the club. After an average opening season, the re-assuring presence of Matic should allow him to flourish, and if played in a trio with Herrera should provide excellent balance in what looks like a functional team.
Now that Mourinho has had a full season, the signs are that this Manchester United will much more closely resemble a classic Mourinho team. He now has strong options at centre back, pace out wide and the closest match to Didier Drogba in world football. The presence of Matic will give him greater confidence in the solidity of his side to enable a little more attacking freedom. It is not shaping up to be an especially entertaining style of football, but experience has shown that it is effective. This is a crucial season for Mourinho as the minimum requirement is to mount a serious title challenge. It will be interesting to see how quickly the new signings bed in and if the playing mentality will be more expansive. For the time-being, providing he is successful the Old Trafford faithful may well be willing to tolerate bland consistency providing it harvests results. The arrival of Matic is almost like a perfect microcosm to illustrate that balance.
Matic is a proven winner – he has won two of the last three Premier League titles. That mentality is also crucial to Mourinho, as he has spoken previously about his concern over the mental strength and desire of some of this Manchester United squad. Matic is a proven commodity who should slot into this side with minimal effort, providing consistency and solidity.
In his debut at Dublin’s Aviva stadium last Wednesday evening, in the 45 minutes he was on the field, he displayed effortlessly the qualities he was signed for. He made the holding role he was tasked with look extremely easy, and drifted around in front of the back three with authority and presence. He even displayed his ruthlessness by needlessly blasting the ball into the face of an unsuspecting pensioner sat in the front row. I don’t know if Matic began the summer as Mourinho’s number one midfield target, but there is no doubt the 29-year-old Serbian will make Manchester United a more formidable opponent this year, and if he tidies up as well as my new Dyson I will be a satisfied punter.