Manchester United midfielder Nemanja Matic was considered a dead man walking just a few months ago. The Serbian had fallen down the pecking order, with Fred and Scott McTominay establishing themselves in Solskjaer’s midfield and was deemed surplus to requirements.
How quickly things change in football, with the former Chelsea man now finding himself at the centre, both literally and figuratively, of Solskjaer’s team. Injuries to Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay has helped his cause, but the Serbian international is grabbing this opportunity to impress with both hands.
It’s no surprise that United’s upturn in form has coincided with Bruno Fernandes’ introduction into the side, but its been further helped by the solidity, consistency, and authority of both Fred and Nemanja Matic behind him.
In terms of performance, last year, Matic had never looked lower in a United shirt. Laboured in possession, languid in his movement and tackling, fans started to turn on the Serbian and was used as one of the scapegoats for United’s poor form soon after the Norwegian signed a deal to manage the club permanently. The long list of injuries meant Matic never relinquished his place in the squad, yet he still put in some abysmal performances.
Even during Solskjaer’s ‘honeymoon’ period when he took over the reins from Mourinho in December 2018, the defensive midfielder still had no place in the team, seen as the unfortunate outcast, failing to mix it up with his teammates.
Nemanja Matic began this campaign with the same role, starting from the bench, barely picking up an appearance apart from the odd Europa League game and subsequently, picked up an injury. Things only got worse from thereon. The partnership between Fred and Scott rose to much prominence, placing themselves as Solskjaer’s trusted midfield pairing.
With the midfielder’s contract due this summer, there wasn’t much use for the Serbian. He’d only be confined to the odd game, here and there. Merely a squad player, essentially there to bulk up Solskjaer’s options in a lacklustre midfield but not one the Norwegian could call upon. Injury to Paul Pogba potentially forced the manager’s hand but he had other ideas. Instead, the Norwegian relied on Andreas Pereira to fulfill a role in midfield that was unfamiliar to him.
Scott McTominay’s sudden injury brought a great deal of panic and Pereira certainly wasn’t up to the task to fill in. So, Solskjaer had no choice but to pull out Matic from the rubble. Since then, the Serbian midfielder hasn’t looked back. Proving why Mourinho signed him up from Chelsea in the first place.
What seemed like a weakness in his game, his lackadaisical passing, positioning, and movement have now been reincarnated. Nemanja Matic now looks much sharper in his passing, tackling and positional understanding. Presently, he averages 2.1 tackles per game in the Premier League, 1.8 in the Europa League, an average of 1.2 interceptions and an overall passing success rate of under 90%.
Even the one truly bad moment he’s had since returning to the fold, the red card against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup was a momentary lapse of judgement that blotted what was an otherwise excellent and commanding performance — where he scored the match-winning goal.
Against Watford and Everton in recent weeks, we’ve certainly seen the best of Nemanja Matic. He even could have been on the scoresheet twice against Everton at Goodison Park, hitting the bar and forcing a smart save from Jordan Pickford.
The reason Mourinho had such high regard for Matic was because of his authoritativeness on the pitch, his commanding presence, striking fear into fellow midfielders and his cutting edge when it comes to breaking up play. He displayed just that in the recent 2-0 derby win over Manchester City too. It was because of his and Fred’s energy, tenacity and awareness that City just couldn’t conjure up any inspiration to haul themselves back into the game. It was a masterclass showing from Matic.
Since his return, the Serb has consummately performed those roles and with the added sprinkle of quality in Bruno Fernandes, he now plays behind a player fully capable of complementing his dirty work in front of the defence. He quickly finds the Portuguese in dangerous positions because of his improved passing and Fernandes’ fantastic positional understanding. Moreover, the Serbian’s recent performances have been awarded a contract extension, as confirmed by Solskjaer before the City game.
“We have agreed with him so he will stay. 100 per cent”
The Norwegian now holds the luxury of harnessing a blend of skill sets in the middle, and with Paul Pogba still to return in the coming weeks, things are looking bright for the Norwegian and his team. With Nemanja Matic in this sort of form, the club are now in a much better position than they were before the turn of the year.