Alex Ferguson made some questionable choices as Manchester United manager; selling the likes of Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside was almost unthinkable at the time, but United then went on to win the FA Cup soon after and he was vindicated. He repeated the act castigating Andrei Kanchelskis, Mark Hughes and Paul Ince in the summer of 1995 but the Class of 92 rewarded his faith with the league the following season. Even Darren Fletcher came good in the end. The United fanbase had become used to trusting their manager.
It has seemed in recent seasons though, that the fans have constantly questioned the judgement of José Mourinho.
When Mourinho was appointed, it seemed that all the Portuguese had to do was play Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford and the good results would come. These were talented young players and their potential would shine through. Mourinho fought hard against this; rotating and even dropping each player, never granting the playing time that the fans demanded. It was a frustrating story with Ander Herrera too. To Mourinho’s credit, Herrera had never looked so comfortable in a United shirt until Mourinho’s first season. Herrera was ever-present and looked a serious contender for the captaincy the following season. Against the grain however, Herrera found himself out of the team and has struggled to regain his starting position since.
Martial, Shaw and Rashford have all shown improved form this season and have each made their way into the Manchester United starting XI. On Saturday, Ander Herrera too made a strong case for his future inclusion.
The Manchester United fanbase have never felt so resolute in their views. They are now calling for Mourinho to drop Nemanja Matić from the starting XI, with the Serb having looked decisively less effective in recent weeks.
Mourinho is a manager who likes ‘warriors’ and there are few who demonstrate warrior qualities more than Nemanja Matić. The Serb spoke on Monday of growing up in war-torn Serbia in the late 1990s, and his pitch persona reflects a man forged in battle.
At his best, Matić skilfully shields the defence with astute distribution and he is rarely caught in possession. He is athletic and agile on the ball. The Serb was greeted with cynicism upon his arrival in Manchester but soon won over his critics with the assurance he brought to the midfield. He was seen as the perfect foil to Paul Pogba’s flamboyance. Among his other attributes, the Serb is remarkably consistent, having only missed five Premier League games since joining Chelsea in January 2013.
Matić has played 69 games for club and country since he joined Manchester United in the summer of 2017. He also competed in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where he suffered an ankle injury. That injury delayed Matić’s return to Manchester this season and he missed the opening two games against Leicester and Brighton. In late July, Mourinho had said that he did not know how long Matić would be absent having just had surgery on his ankle. Andreas Pereira deputised ably for Matić against Leicester, but was substituted at half time against Brighton. Matić returned in the next game at home to Tottenham.
Matić has played 13 games this season and he has not produced the same level of form as in his debut season. He has not been the same physical force and his passing has been less consistent. Against Bournemouth on Saturday, the lack of his usual athleticism was painfully evident in the first half. Matić looked a player past his best.
There are increasing calls for Mourinho’s ever present warrior to be dropped.
In Dublin last Tuesday, Eric Cantona spoke to an assembled audience of his gratitude to Sir Alex Ferguson, who witnessed a poor run of form in the Frenchman at the start of the 1996-97 without ever dropping him. Cantona felt that Ferguson’s patience allowed him to slowly play his way back into form and benefit the team in the long-term.
The Matić case is different however.
Matić is a fine player and turned 30 this summer. He should still be at his peak. While he might look a player past his best, a more realistic reason might be that he was rushed back from injury too soon and he desperately needs a break. Matić played 56 games in all competitions last season. He then suffered an injury and his return was expedited by a manager who felt he desperately needed his services. It is clear that something is not clicking for the reliable Serb.
There is precedent to Matić being rested. Sir Alex Ferguson rested Peter Schmeichel at the start of 1999, famously sending the Dane to Barbados, missing the 6-2 victory over Leicester. Schmeichel had also played in a World Cup the summer previous. Schmeichel would return energised, ready to play a vital role in the run-in for United’s treble winning season.
The fans have been correct in their desire for the likes of Martial and Herrera to be in the team. The calls for Matić to be ‘dropped’ might be premature though. He is a fine player, and one who United will desperately need as the season progresses. Given his recent injury however, it might be wise to rest the Serb to truly regain his best form.
Sadly, José Mourinho is not a manager who rotates or rests his best players. Certain players, and Matić is among them, are Mourinho’s preferred candidates to start every single match. Mourinho trusts Matić implicitly and is loathe to play anyone else.
It is for good reason. There are few as skilled as Nemanja Matić. To his credit, he is far too young a player to simply say ‘his legs are gone.’ Matić will return, but he might just need some care and patience from not only the fans but also his manager. A rest would do him good. With Juventus and Manchester City just around the corner however, he might have to wait a while longer.