Nemanja Matić will probably go down in Manchester United history as emblematic of the José Mourinho era. Not only was he brought in from Chelsea by the Portuguese coach, but in many ways he’s the perfect reflection of his approach to the game: inelegant and unglamorous but ruthless and effective. With Matić as with Mourinho, you’re unlikely to win pretty, but you’re likely to win.
Or so we thought. The parallels have become even more uncanny over the last season, when it has become increasingly apparent that neither possesses the power to terrify their opponents into submission as they once did. Mourinho’s tactics have looked worryingly archaic and Matić’s midfield performances increasingly agricultural: gone is the industrial efficiency that characterised their winning partnership at Stamford Bridge. Matić has looked slow and clumsy, deserted by the perfect positional play that once marked him out as one of the world’s top defensive midfielders.
The jury’s still out on whether Mourinho’s days as an elite coach are over, but there can be little doubt that Matić is past his playing best. At 30, he should still have a couple of years of Premier League football left in him, but we have to hope that’s as a rotation option rather than a first-team fixture. JS
In theory, Nemanja Matić is a very good football player. He is an imperious physical presence, he has an excellent understanding of space that makes him well-equipped to cut off passing lanes and receive the ball from the back four, and he has title- and cup-winning experience. However, all of that counts for very little when your legs don’t work. And at only 30 years old, Matić’s legs no longer work.
There was a brief period — read: 3 matches — after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment where it seemed that even Matić’s form had been lifted. The former manager’s most trusted lieutenant, the player most emblematic of José Mourinho’s failed regime; even he was improved once Mourinho was out of the picture. It was both an indictment of Mourinho (a defensive midfielder appearing to be better suited to less defensive team shape), and a rebuttal of the idea that Matić was finished. It did not last long though, and only a few games in, the Serbian’s physical limitations reared their ugly head yet again.
In modern football, and particularly in the Premier League, a holding midfielder who is unable to track runners simply cannot be accomodated. We have seen time and again that immobile midfielders, no matter their class on the ball, will be ruthlessly exposed if they are unable to move around effectively off of it. Matić is “only” 30, but unless he experiences a sudden physical rebirth over the summer, he can no longer be trusted to be a starting player at United. BM