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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 February 2019

Manchester United's unsung hero Nemanja Matic the driving force in Leicester win

The Serbian has recovered from a slow start to the season to be an integral part of the fine form of Solskjaer's men

Manchester United made it nine wins and a draw from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first 10 games in charge with a hard fought 1-0 win at Leicester City on Sunday afternoon.

No United manager has enjoyed such an impressive start as manager and the Norwegian and his players have been heralded right from his first game at Cardiff six weeks ago.

Solskjaer’s forward players Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba have received the most praise, goalkeeper David de Gea too.

They are United’s star men, the showmen and the shot stopper. Solskjaer knows his best team and plays it, but there are several other players who have excelled. Ander Herrera, who is hoping to sign a contract extension, has been praised, Victor Lindelof too.

Nemanja Matic less so. The 30 year old does not score or assist, he does not even get a mention in the ‘Waterfall’ song so beloved by United fans who opt for ‘Sanchez, Paul Pogba and Fred’.

But Matic is a vital player for Manchester United, one respected by fans and teammates. He brings balance, calm, stability, vision and a huge physical frame. He blocks – and all in a style so languid he looks laid back.

There is more to him than what’s in the pitch. Matic is one of the few United players who will stop and face the media whether his team have won, drawn or lost.

The Serbian, who became a father again last week, started this season poorly. The former Chelsea midfielder joined up with the United team later than was hoped in Los Angeles before undergoing a minor hernia operation.

His form in the opening league games was weak and fans were quick to criticise him – Nemanja ‘Static’ was one if the less favourable comments.

Matic deserved support and received it. He had a solid first season and played more minutes than any other outfield player – and in a demanding central midfield role, too.

The £40 million (Dh192.1m) signing looked like a leader but he was also seen as Jose Mourinho’s man on the pitch.

That has not gone against him under Solskjaer, who told every player that they would get a chance and has certainly given Matic opportunities. Again, no outfield player has played more minutes under the new boss than Matic.

United’s midfield three is settled with Matic as the most defensive, the ever tenacious Herrera and Pogba, yet at Leicester Matic was often in a more advanced role.

He is one of several United players who is comfortable – and happy - with the manager’s instructions to get the ball forward quickly.

United also play in a more advanced system with the full-back encouraged to get forward and wide into space. Herrera, Matic and Pogba work well in this formation.

Leicester had only won two of their 25 Premier League games against United prior to Sunday, but they had players capable of hurting United and not just in Jamie Vardy upfront.

Matic showed his usefulness in a defensive role at set-pieces by dealing with the significant aerial presence of Harry Maguire.

Even when he did receive a booking for dragging back Ricardo Perreira he showed his sporting spirit by shaking the Portuguese’s hand by way of apology.

Rashford put United ahead after nine minutes, five minutes after he had headed a great chance over from a Luke Shaw cross.

The goal came when Ricardo gave the ball away to Pogba, who picked out a fine pass forward to the Mancunian. Rashford pulled the ball down and finished confidently past Kasper Schmeichel.

Matic had no role in the actual decisive moment of the match but his part in helping maintain United's charge back towards the top-four positions was vital.

Leicester, who impressed at Old Trafford in the opening game of the season despite losing 2-1, have been in poor form, losing two and drawing one of their last three games.

Claude Puel’s side were also knocked out of the FA Cup at their first hurdle by fourth tier Newport County. That has brought criticism for the French coach from fans, but they were supportive of Leicester’s efforts to get back into the game.

James Maddison, who had played well at Old Trafford went off after 60 minutes having been unable to impact sufficiently on the match. Well, he was being watched by Matic after all.

Updated: February 3, 2019 09:14 PM

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