Nemanja Matic: Manchester United to reap short-term benefits and Chelsea long-term
The Serbian will bolster midfield at Old Trafford, but Conte's side have a younger player in Bakayoko to step in at Stamford Bridge.
When the first pictures of Nemanja Matic at the Carrington training ground emerged, the midfielder wearing the No 31 that used to be Bastian Schweinsteiger’s, and Jose Mourinho said the Serb wants “very, very much” to join Manchester United, it was tempting to rewind to 3 October 2015.
Chelsea lost 3-1 at home to Southampton. Matic came on at half-time and came off 28 minutes later, the substitute substituted. “It was not humiliating – I don’t do that to anyone in football or life,” insisted Mourinho, a man who invariably has an agenda protesting his innocence.
But Matic was one of the underachievers in an awful autumn that culminated in the Portuguese’s sacking.
Almost two years later, their reunion is a sign that bygones are bygones and the past not so much another country as another part of the same one, but their history is distinctly relevant.
Mourinho has won a title with Matic at the heart of his midfield. He could eye a repeat. Some similarities are already apparent.
If Chelsea had to swallow their pride to re-sign Matic for six times as much as they had sold him, United seemingly had to back down and pay the asking price when reports of Mourinho’s dissatisfaction with their failure to land transfer targets emerged.
All of which reflects on Matic’s importance. Unlike other recruits, he will not require a crash-course in Mourinho’s management. He should be expected to slot straight in.
Michael Carrick may have been appointed captain, but he is scarcely a typical Mourinho holding midfielder, and it is characteristic of the Portuguese to prioritise the position.
Matic conforms more to type. He is more destructive than constructive, despite his unusual return of seven assists last season. He can be uncompromising and imposing. Ander Herrera showed his adaptability to anchor the midfield efficiently at times, but those duties should pass to the newcomer.
A trio of Matic, Herrera and Paul Pogba promises physicality and solidity. Mourinho does not merely build from the back; he builds from the base of the midfield. He has swapped systems in pre-season, but will probably play 4-3-3 with Matic.
Like Pogba, he is huge and Mourinho’s United should be much the biggest of the challengers. Old Trafford will be less the Theatre of Dreams than the land of the giants. Matic is an unapologetically pragmatic signing, and not least because he turns 29 on Tuesday.
Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof may deliver a decade’s service apiece, but Matic is a decidedly short-term signing.
It is why, at least on paper, this makes sense to Chelsea. Selling to an immediate rival always carries risks, and will be deemed to have backfired if United finish ahead of them, but Chelsea have in effect traded Matic for Tiemoue Bakayoko, over six years his junior, selling the Serb just as his value was about to depreciate.
They have raised £40 million (Dh192.5m) for one who, after the Ivorian’s arrival, was arguably only the third best defensive midfielder on their books.
Certainly N’Golo Kante’s primacy is unquestioned. The Frenchman recorded a higher pass completion rate with more passes per game last season, averaging more tackles, interceptions and fouls.
Matic dovetailed well with the Footballer of the Year last season, but Conte clearly deemed him expendable.
But his departure does mean attention switches to Chelsea. They squad was reduced in January and, despite four senior signings, it has been again this summer, with seven sales and a host of players loaned out.
Conte’s requires additions, with Bayern Munich declaring Chelsea are interested in borrowing Renato Sanches.
If Matic fills a hole at Old Trafford, he leaves one at Stamford Bridge, if only among the replacements.
Updated: July 31, 2017 01:31 PM