“Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” – Zidane on losing Makélélé
For the second time in four years, Roman Abramovich has let the icy façade drop and rewarded one of Chelsea’s long-serving senior players for their service by packing them on a private jet and sending them up north to Manchester. Coming in the same week as Neymar’s £200m move to PSG, Nemanja Matic’s switch understandably garnered fewer headlines than every previous transfer between domestic rivals. In a way, that sums up exactly what Jose is looking for from his latest big money signing. The £35m Serbian has been bought to remain under the radar. To be the glue that holds together the rest of the side while letting the superstars ahead of him flourish. And if Matic can stride through the next nine months without getting a mention on Match Of The Day then he would have done his job perfectly.
Every balanced side needs these team players who sacrifice themselves for others and act as enablers for the talent that surrounds them. Chelsea have Kante, Manchester City have Fernandinho and while Matic may not have a position named after himself when he retires, he could be the engine which drives United to the title this season.
A key part of Jose’s footballing philosophy is the managing of risk. From a micro-level of kicking the ball into the dugout to stop a quick throw-in and potential counter-attack by an opponent all the way up to a macro-level of rarely risking a winning position by asking his sides to pour forward in search of more goals (United only won on 9 occasions by a greater than two goal margin in a 63 game season compared to 13 wins for Spurs for example in a 53 game season). Jose puts a significant weighting on minimising any risks which could threaten the result.
Buying a player who knows his methods, who has played in every one of his formations and who has already experienced huge levels of success in English football ensures that there will be no need for any Mkhitaryan-esque disappearance and settling-in period. In a season where a title challenge is expected, choosing a player who is ready to start immediately and has little-to-no risk attached to him makes perfect sense.
As alluded to earlier, Matic has been bought to bring the best out of those ahead of him. Primarily the £89m superstar to his left. Pogba showed flashes of his genius last season with a respectable tally of five goals and foue assists in 33 league appearances, the majority of which he started either in an awkward midfield two or as the nervous babysitter, cleaning up after Fellaini’s latest stumble.
However, as his performances for Juventus showed, we only get to see the real Pogba when he is in a midfield three and given the freedom to roam and dominate a game from that inside-left channel. The tactical discipline, physicality and increased mobility (no laughing at the back!) of Matic when compared to Carrick or Fellaini or in this defensive midfield position will enable Pogba to free himself of any defensive worries and start to impose his game on opponents higher up the pitch. If Pogba finds a bit more composure in front of goal this season, he should reach 15 goals thanks to the protection Matic offers.
Jose certainly has enough experience of building a side around a box-to-box, goal-scoring superstar in a 4-3-3 system. Pogba’s chances of winning the Player Of The Year award have just improved.
The issue of what constitutes ‘value’ in the market was debated endlessly last summer thanks to #Pogback and we all get to experience that warm, cuddly, holier-than-thou, lecturing joy again this week when #Neymarrived (announcing signings is harder than it looks as that pitiful effort just proved) is finalised and every heavyweight columnist tells us “the game has gone”.
However, securing a low risk, experienced, serial winner for £35m in today’s market can hardly be described as bad business.
While Chelsea fans will rightfully applaud their board’s ability to negotiate such a deal for someone who they have already replaced with a younger model, Tiémoué Bakayoko, and who wanted to leave the club, no one of a United persuasion should feel disappointed at being asked to pay that fee for a title winner and immediate upgrade on the current options within the squad.
Whether it’s the tsunami of hilarious ‘ANNOUNCE MESSI’ responses to any announcement from a club’s Twitter account or the surreal move to now seeing the transfer window as a trophy clubs can ‘win’ (apparently Everton are winning this summer’s window despite selling their top scorer and bringing in players none of the six clubs ahead of them wanted), we are living in a crazy football age where transfers are rivalling wins for importance in the eyes of some fans.
One established football website recorded the highest number of daily visitors in their history this summer when no tournament football was being played and before any glamorous pre-season tours to the U.S. or Asia had begun. Transfers and rumours are turning into a juggernaut which can define a fan base’s mood heading into a new season (witness the annual ‘ARSENE OUT’ banners at their opening home fixture after Arsenal’s latest transfer window shambles) and exert significant pressure over boards.
Within this context the Matic signing just seems a bit uninspiring. A 29-year-old who looks a bit like a lost lumberjack and who fans have watched on a weekly basis for four years hardly screams excitement. Fans are always looking for something new, shiny and preferably exotic before a season starts and any hint of disappointment or dissent in the stands won’t really fit this season with Jose going all-in with his fabled siege mentality on his title march. With transfer budgets a thing of the past for Premier League sides thanks to the latest TV deal and more ‘attractive’ options in the market, the Matic deal looks overly conservative and a wasted opportunity to inject some further inspiration into this new side.
One interesting aspect to this deal is that he has only been given a three-year contract. A sign of a possible lack of faith in the deal or a pragmatic acceptance that he is here as a short-term plaster to do a job before being moved on when Jose leaves?
As someone who sat through every minute of Matic last season, it is hard to ignore his alarming loss of form and mobility. With seven assists, Matic may have registered more than any United player, but a number of these were flick ons at corners or a five-yard pass to Pedro and Hazard before they scored a wonder goal.
Beyond the assists though his all-round play was verging on painful at times. It is hard to stand out when Kante is doing his action man thing next to you but Matic struggled to get beyond a jog for long stretches last season. And this was with a full week of rest in between fixtures. He has a wand of a right foot, if that wand was made out of concrete, and is weaker than a bag of candyfloss when asked to go head-to-head in a physical battle. A number of us are still shaking in the corner of a darkened room and trying to recover from Wanyama humiliating him relentlessly at The Lane last season.
He is a diligent tactical pawn but the nagging issue over whether United should be looking for something more remain.
However, do these doubts over his style and technique and inability to play a progressive game matter? Was Jose merely brought in to get the side back to a competitive level, while winning the odd trophy in between cleaning up the mess of the previous two regimes, with style not even registering on the list of priorities?
Matic is far from the joke figure some of the more immature Chelsea fans claim and he will prove useful in a highly structured system but for those seeking a more creative approach, he will look embarrassingly out of place.
A midfield three of Matic-Pogba-Herrera looks more balanced than anything with Fellaini in it and has the tactical intelligence the side needs but where is the subtlety? Where is the pace?
This midfield three will follow Jose’s instructions to the letter but they will be performed at a walking pace which puts a lot of pressure on the three ahead of them to prevent this season turning into another grind.
This is not meant to be a pitch to put style ahead of results but at some point along the Jose lifecycle, seeing your side turn up to another away game playing for a 0-0 or reacting to a second half goal by asking another centre back to get stripped and ready to man the barricades gets tiring.
Much like with this signing the mind can’t help but ponder if it has to be this way or if there are more attractive options out there. But for the short term, with plenty of expectation on Mourinho’s highly anticipated second season, Matic should do a job for United.