Manchester United have dramatically improved this season after their mediocre campaign in the Premier League last season and a large part of their rise has been the performances of Nemanja Matic in the centre of midfield.
The Serbian midfielder, a favourite of Jose Mourinho’s, was prized from the clutches of Premier League champions Chelsea in the summer, with the Blues’ decision to sell earning a wealth of criticism, and Matic’s performances may have left the West London side regretting their decision already.
Per WhoScored ratings, Matic has averaged a solid 7.46 this season- the third-highest total for a Manchester United player who’s played every game in the Premier League this season, a tally only Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who boasts five assists, and Romelu Lukaku, who’s scored seven goals, can better.
Matic’s performance is not based on those sort of numbers though and his role in the side can often go unnoticed, although the influential performances of N’Golo Kante in the Premier League winning seasons for both Chelsea and Leicester City has raised the attention for players in this role.
The 29-year-old, who returned to Chelsea in 2014 after three-years in Benfica, was considered by many to be a player who simply slipped under the radar during his first spell at Stamford Bridge but that’s not the case. When he moved to Portugal in 2011, he was a much different player to the one who returned to West London 2014.
"He's one of the signings of the summer. Their safety valve."
Michael Owen on how integral Nemanja Matić has been this season for Man Utd. pic.twitter.com/oRNeIgxp4B
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) September 27, 2017
Joining at the end of January Jorge Jesus, the current manager of Sporting Lisbon, immediately changed the way Matic played, switching him from a playmaker to a midfield powerhouse- a change that quickly led to vast improvements.
In April of the following year, Matic would lift his first trophy with Benfica and would go on to be crowned the Portuguese league’s Player of the Year in July 2013. Not only had he settled into his new role, he was thriving and swiftly becoming one of the best in Europe in his position.
Overall, Matic spent three successful years under Jorge Jesus and he’s praised the influence his former boss had on his career ahead of tonight’s Champions League clash between Manchester United and Benfica, which sees the Eastern European ace return to his former stomping ground.
One league title and three domestic cup wins were secured in Benfica for Matic and he remembers his time on the continent fondly, telling Manchester United’s official website:
“When I first came to Benfica, the manager Jorge Jesus told me on my first day I would be playing as a no.6 or as a defensive midfielder. At the beginning, it was strange for me because I didn’t know I could play that position but, slowly, I trained with the team and the manager explained to me how to do it. And after a lot of hard work, now, I’m at Manchester United, so I must have done the job well!”
Tactics are part and parcel of the modern game but a change like Jesus’, where he quickly switched Matic into a more defensive role, is something that’s a lot rarer in football as usually those sort of adjustments are gradual.
Matic, a much younger player during his stint at Benfica, saw his switch allow him to fine turn his role to relearn the ‘basics’ of being a midfielder. Whilst that sounds easy, and looks it on paper, that’s not the case and it takes a lot of ability to excel in this position.
Aren’t many DM’s around more press resistant than Nemanja Matić. Sharp turns, composure, & strong shielding leads to superb ball retention. pic.twitter.com/IiaAS2ZYIj
— Adroit Cadet (@Adroit_Cadet) 29 August 2017
One of Matic’s biggest strengths, which Jorge Jesus helped to craft, was his awareness without possession. Knowing which runs to track, where to cover and when to make a tackle are crucial, as one slick pass can quickly take a defensive midfielder out of the game.
Now excelling at Manchester United, Matic is poised to become a crucial part of any success that Jose Mourinho’s side enjoy this season and, by his own admission, there’s a lot more to come from him – telling The Independent that fans can expect more earlier this month.
“I didn’t have pre-season. I trained alone. I can feel it in some parts of the game! My body is not ready yet and I have some difficulty, of course, but I try to hide that and to play simple. I will be better.”
It’s still early days in the season but Matic is already looking to be one of the purchases of the summer and Manchester United fans owe a lot to Jorge Jesus, the man that made Matic who he is today.