Matic may be United’s mar­quee sign­ing

Lesotho Times - - Sport -

LON­DON — Six months into his first sea­son back at Chelsea, José Mour­inho had iden­ti­fied three key ar­eas in which his team were de­fi­cient. Hind­sight sug­gests it was that recog­ni­tion that led, at the be­gin­ning of Fe­bru­ary 2014, to his “lit­tle horses” press con­fer­ence in which he de­nied Chelsea were ti­tle con­tenders de­spite hav­ing pulled to within two points of the top with a 1-0 win at Manch­ester City. He was lack­ing a gen­uine goalscorer and a cre­ative pres­ence in mid­field, prob­lems re­solved by the sign­ings that sum­mer of Diego Costa and Cesc Fàbre­gas, but he had al­ready moved in Jan­uary to plug the other gap by bring­ing Ne­manja Matic back from Ben­fica.

Chelsea made 10 sign­ings in 2014 but it was those three who were the most im­por­tant, some­thing that was ob­vi­ous from the mo­ment Chelsea beat Burn­ley in their open­ing game of the sea­son. Each of the three ma­jor de­fi­cien­cies the pre­vi­ous sea­son had been dealt with and it is only a slight ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that from that mo­ment Chelsea’s ti­tle win was a pro­ces­sion.

Mour­inho has made a habit of such clin­i­cal changes af­ter a sea­son at a club. Since he joined Porto in 2002, he has al­ways won the league in his sec­ond sea­son — at Porto, at Chelsea, at In­ter­nazionale and Real Madrid, and at Chelsea again — as though that is the happy mid­point when he has had time to or­gan­ise his team but not quite had time to ex­haust them with his con­stant po­lit­i­cal ma­noeu­vring.

Matic makes it three ma­jor sign­ings at United this sum­mer: each in the spine of the side and each ad­dress­ing a spe­cific issue. Romelu Lukaku should bring the goals that United could not find against lesser sides who de­fended com­pactly last sea­son. Vic­tor Lin­de­lof should add sta­bil­ity to the cen­tre of a de­fence that clearly never sat­is­fied Mour­inho last sea­son. But in terms of the struc­ture of the team, Matic may be the most im­por­tant of the lot.

Mour­inho has al­ways sought a dom­i­nant pres­ence at the back of mid­field, some­body who could offer, as he him­self has put it, “po­si­tion, sta­bil­ity, con­trol”, some­body for whom “to score a goal is a mir­a­cle but to lose a ball is also a mir­a­cle”. At Porto he had Costinha; at Chelsea the first time Claude Makelele (and Mikel John Obi, ini­tially a far more com­plete mid­fielder whom he tried to mould into his en­forcer); at In­ter Este­ban Cam­bi­asso; at Madrid Las­sana Diarra or Xabi Alon- so; and then Matic at Chelsea.

Last sea­son, when Michael Carrick was un­avail­able, the ev­er­will­ing An­der Her­rera was pressed into ser­vice in the role but he seems more nat­u­rally a shut­tler, the al­lrounder who can link the front and back of the team along­side a holder in the man­ner of Pe­dro Men­des, Ti­ago Men­des, Michael Bal­lack, Javier Zanetti or Ramires.

Ad­ver­tise­ment It’s a role that has a pro­found in­flu­ence over the rest of the team. The holder serves as a breakwa- ter in front of the cen­tral de­fend­ers, mak­ing it harder for for­wards to iso­late them, while keep­ing the shape com­pact and ide­ally lead­ing the press. He also needs to be able to dis­trib­ute, whether he is keep­ing the ball cir­cu­lat­ing or ini­ti­at­ing coun­ter­at­tacks.

Matic ended up ex­pend­able to Chelsea be­cause of the over­whelm­ing ex­cel­lence of N’golo Kanté, whose en­ergy made it pos­si­ble for him to per­form that role and more, but he was a hugely im­por­tant pres­ence in the ti­tle sea­son un­der Mour­inho. He ought to offer pro­tec- tion to which­ever pair­ing of Lin­de­lof, Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones ends up as first choice but in the con­text of United’s squad, his more im­por­tant in­flu­ence may end up be­ing at the other end of the pitch.

The big­gest sin­gle tac­ti­cal issue United faced last sea­son was get­ting the best out of Paul Pogba, who had a de­cent sea­son but not a sea­son of the sort of in­deli­ble bril­liance you may ex­pect from some­body just signed for a world record fee. He seemed al­ways to be between roles, oc­ca­sion­ally too high up the pitch, where he lacked the close tech­ni­cal abil­i­ties and guile to be ef­fec­tive and where his pace and stamina seemed a lit­tle wasted, or too deep, so he was al­ways play­ing within him­self, un­able to un­leash the sort of surge that had made him so ef­fec­tive at Ju­ven­tus. With a ded­i­cated hold­ing pres­ence — and pos­si­bly Her­rera as well —along­side him, Pogba should be lib­er­ated to be­come the dom­i­nant box-to-box player he can be.

It mat­ters, too, that Matic is a Mour­inho loy­al­ist; his re­spect for his man­ager is ap­par­ently undimmed by what oth­ers may have taken as the hu­mil­i­a­tion of be­ing taken off 28 min­utes af­ter com­ing on as a half-time sub­sti­tute against Southamp­ton in Oc­to­ber 2015. With the odd hint that Mour­inho is be­com­ing frus­trated by United’s trans­fer pol­icy this sum­mer, that could be sig­nif­i­cant in the in­ter­nal pol­i­tick­ing that tends to fol­low the 54-year-old to any club.

For now, though, Matic rep­re­sents a clas­sic Mour­inho sec­ond­sea­son sign­ing, strength­en­ing the spine, an­swer­ing a spe­cific need and, in the­ory at least, mak­ing it eas­ier for oth­ers to do their jobs.

— Guardian

Paul Pogba (left) could be al­lowed more li­cence to roam with ne­manja Matic play­ing along­side him.

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