When Nemanja Matic was sold by Chelsea to Benfica in January, 2011 in a swap deal for David Luiz, there was hardly anyone who raised an eyebrow. The scrawny, curly-haired 23 year-old had only made 3 appearance for the Blues in all competitions in one and half years, and with competition for places in midfield fiercer than ever, the Serbian was not expected to break into the side anytime soon.
Exactly three years on though, Matic was resigned by Chelsea. Manager Jose Mourinho, who had also returned to the Blues after a stint away from Stamford Bridge, judged him to be the best option to add steel to the defensive midfield position. Now, in what appears to be one of the strongest Chelsea sides in recent memory, Matic is one of the most important cogs.
Start as you mean to go on:
If there weren’t any eyebrows raised when Matic left the club, there certainly were many when the decision was taken to re-sign him. His performances over the past couple of seasons for Benfica had been top-notch, winning him the Portuguese League Player of The Year award in the 2012-13 campaign. But, this was a player who had been rejected by Chelsea earlier, and his ability to adapt to the pace of the Premier League was heavily questioned.
In his league debut, Matic faced the biggest test of all. The opponents were Manchester City, the venue was the Etihad Stadium and the man he was assigned to mark was Yaya Toure, arguably the best midfielder in the league. In the 90 minutes that unfolded at Eastlands, Matic clutched his doubters in the palm of his hand and hurled them all away. He produced one of the best performances of his career, as Chelsea ran out 1-0 winners against a side who had won every home game previously, and hadn’t failed to score there in almost 2 years. Toure was hardly given a chance to impact the game. Matic, on the other hand, nearly scored a howitzer, smacking the crossbar with a vicious left-footed effort from 25 yards out.
The Perfect Midfielder:
There is hardly any weakness that Matic possesses. Effortlessly calm in the tackle and composed in his passing, the 26 year-old has controlled the pace of games in the Chelsea midfield since his arrival. At 6 foot 4, he is just as dominating in the air.
He has also shown a keen eye for goal this season, scoring twice thus far. Last Tuesday, he scored the winner on his return to Portugal, against Benfica’s bitter rivals Sporting Lisbon. Following the game, Mourinho described Matic as ‘a monster’. Few could put it any better.
But Matic is a beautiful monster. While being a dogged and determined fighter, he also possesses the knack for picking the pass from deep to cut open defences.
Matic didn’t have a regular partner in the pivot in front of the Chelsea back 4 last season. Ramires, Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel all played alongside the Serbian at some point or another. This season though, with the arrival of Cesc Fabregas, Matic has found a real partner-in-crime. The combo have been immense for Chelsea, providing near-impenetrable cover while defending along with being integral components going forward.
On the basis of his performances, there can be little doubt in anyone’s mind that Matic has established himself as one of the best central midfielders in the Premier League. His influence on games though, is often overshadowed by the attacking players in the side. Diego Costa, with 9 goals and Fabregas, with 7 assists, have garnered a lot of praise, while Matic’s contributions go largely unnoticed.
A major reason for this is because the defensive midfield position never was or ever will be a much-appreciated one. Defensive midfielders do not have too many goals or assists to their names, and it’s the defenders and goalkeepers who take away the plaudits for clean sheets.
Mourinho though, knows Matic’s importance. He has played him in every game of every competition this season. The Portuguese manager may well say that the Serbian not being in the limelight is a good thing.