There was a time not too long ago when Manchester United fans were increasingly agitated by Nemanja Matić’s poor performances under José Mourinho. In the Portuguese manager’s third and final season in charge, the Serbia international was struggling emphatically to keep up with the standard that was expected of him.
Matić was signed by Mourinho for the Red Devils in the summer of 2017, promised to be their midfield enforcer that would take over from Michael Carrick. In truth, Man Utd always needed a player to do the screening job in front of the defence for a number of years with the Englishman’s legs tiring, and this was a clever and astute purchase that came to a level of surprise to some given Chelsea’s willingness to sell.
The Serbian has never been the loudest player on the pitch in terms of his standout performances, but he has seldom let his standard drop a noticeable level – especially under Mourinho at Chelsea. He was a pivotal figure in the Blues’ title win in the 2016-17 season and received stark plaudits from around the game for his immeasurable reliability.
With the involvement of the World Cup for his country in Russia last summer, Matić returned to the fold for his club in a battered state. The 30 year old was injured and carrying niggles, which prevented him from getting up to match speed before the start of the season and having missed out on the opening two matches.
But with Mourinho’s quick and painful downfall, Matić’s performances on the pitch quickly deteriorated. He was no longer seen as an essential cog in Man United’s midfield, but instead a gangly, clumsy player that was making all the wrong decisions at crucial times. He was beginning to become a hinderance.
After the sacking of the Portuguese boss, former centre forward Ole Gunnar Solskjær took over and the spirit in the camp was immediately lifted. As if a large weight had been taken off of their shoulders and the players could breathe once again. Matić, too, started to see an increase in the standard of his performances and was beginning to become an integral part of the team once more.
The Serbian, just sitting in front of the defence and acting as their protector, also gave true freedom to Paul Pogba alongside Ander Herrera. Their three-man midfield combination has worked effortlessly so far and has seen their club win nine times from 10 matches in all competitions.
Matić and Pogba have started every single Premier League match since Solskjær took up the reins, which has helped them both improve on their consistency and get the best out of one another.
The Serbian might not be as prolific as some moving forward, but then again, it’s not his job to be. Matić has accepted his defensive-minded role and is excelling in cutting out danger, intercepting play and launching quick counter-attacks by passing the ball swiftly to one of the offensive players ahead of him.
Some players, at 30-years-old, might well have given up in trying to claw their way back into a team as competitive as Manchester United’s, but to Matić’s credit, he has done exceedingly well to hang on to his place. There were many times this season when fans would have wanted someone else in front of the defence, but with the improvement in his game, Matić is leading the player for the job.
At times, the best way to understand if a defensive midfielder is having a good game is if you rarely notice him. They are not ones to stand out from the crowd or get bums off seats; instead, they are players who go about doing the dirty work in a discreet manner and put up a defensive wall in front of his defenders. Matić has done just that.
It was difficult to justify Matić’s starting berth a few months back, but he has risen to the appointment of Solskjær and is now, once again, one of the first names on the team sheet.
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