Who Is Chelsea's Most Important Player?
“Matic was a monster.” As Mourinho quotes go, it was a concise one, but it said everything you needed to know.
Many questioned the decision Chelsea made in January by paying £21m to bring Nemanja Matic back to the club from Benfica. It seemed like an admission of fault after letting the prodigious talent go in the first place. Now it looks like a bargain.
What Matic brings is a presence, at 6ft 4in he has the ranginess to cover vast swathes of the midfield, freeing up Cesc Fabregas to do Cesc-things. In Mourinho’s system Matic has to control the central zone pretty much alone, but now that the wingers do a huge amount of work tracking back he doesn’t have to patrol sideline-to-sideline.
The Serbian was the man of the match against Lisbon. He supplemented his goal with five out of five successful tackles, two blocked shots and 42 of 54 completed passes.
Despite his size Matic is an elegant footballer, using his long legs to drive forward akin to Yaya Toure. One of his favourite moves in the final third is to get a defender squared up and drag the ball past them and manufacture a crossing opportunity. The thing that makes it so effective is that defenders seldom seem to expect it from the big Serb.
Maybe it is a case of perception. Branislav Ivanovic has always been underrated going forward despite showing his ability with the ball at his feet many times in a Chelsea shirt. The snarling Serbian enforcers shouldn’t be that good with a ball at their feet, yet they are, time and time again.
The amazing thing about Matic is despite his strength, tenacity and the role he plays in breaking up opposition attacks, he still manages to look so disciplined. He has 10 bookings in 53 appearances for Chelsea and no red cards. You would expect Matic to be required to perform some Ricardo Carvalho-esque dark arts from time to time when faced with a rampant counter-attack, but he always manages to make things look neat and tidy.
Matic is a metronomic passer with a great left foot. When he is sweeping balls out to the full-back he does it extremely well, but when he drops it backwards or sideways a-la John Obi Mikel he can look a tad dejected, jabbing at it with his weaker right foot as if it pains him to not be driving forward. This is coached in, and necessary in the modern game, but the fact that this is how he plays makes him all the more endearing to fans.
If you look at any of Matic’s passing maps you will see how he is responsible for spreading the play, keeping the ball moving and retaining possession. Matic was incredible at the weekend against Aston Villa because the visitors didn’t press him at all. He completed an absolutely astounding 97 of 102 pass attempts in the game (Cesc completed 133, a number that quite simply makes me feel exhausted), and two of Matic’s failed passes occurred inside the 18 yard box. His passing maps clearly show that he isn’t the greatest final third passer in the team, but the fact that he wants to make things happen in that area raises him above other “defensive” midfield players.
Having Matic available for Champions League fixtures was always going to be a bonus this season, but he is proving more valuable than even his most ardent fans would expect. This may be because the alternatives are so bad. John Obi Mikel is very much the same build as Matic but has about as much elegance and control as a p****d-up Lee Cattermole, and Ramires is like that lad in an under-16s game that’s only there because he’s quicker than everyone else.
When Chelsea lost over two legs to Atletico Madrid in last year’s semi-final they started with David Luiz and Ramires in midfield with a narrow Cesar Azpilicueta on the right, sacrificing the possession battle in both legs. Mourinho spoke with a degree of desperation at the time: “Because we lost Lampard and Mikel and Matic is ineligible and we don't have the players that give us stability with midfield, I need to make us compact. I don't know if patience is the word.”
Matic brings a level of calm and control to the midfield not seen since the halcyon days of Claude Makélélé and Michael Essien. Chelsea fans can only hope for players of that quality again, but Matic combines enough of Makélélé’s elegance and Essien’s power to give them reason to cheer on the unsung Serb.