What is the reason behind Nemanja Matic’s decline?
Even though Manchester United signed Romelu Lukaku for £75 million two years ago, the biggest summer surprise in 2017 was Chelsea's willingness to sell Nemanja Matic to their direct rivals.
Many Blues fans expressed outrage. Chelsea manager Antonio Conte claimed he had nothing to do with the decision. United boss Jose Mourinho also seemed surprised at Abramovich's decision to let Matic leave, given the integral role he played in their recent title-winning campaigns.
“I was surprised when [Matic's] agent called me to say 'do you want him? I was surprised, but he's an agent I know well. Normally he's very direct and objective, he doesn't waste time, he doesn't try to get people to be interested in his players to improve their situation at their club. Normally he's very straightforward, so when he told me 'you can have him if you want', of course, I want.”
Matic started last season on fire, justifying his already reasonable £40 million price tag. The Serb provided the steel in midfield that drove United to finish second in the Premier League and reach an FA Cup final. This season, however, his performances fell well below par.
The World Cup might be a factor. Serbia never made it past the group stages but Matic was critical to what success they enjoyed, providing much-needed defensive cover. At 29, the tournament may have asked more than the midfielder had to give, hence his sluggish performances for United this year.
Mourinho came under fire for failing to drop Matic in recent weeks. There's no doubt the Serb could do with a well-deserved rest. On the other hand, since United were ragged by Huddersfield while fielding a dynamic midfield of Paul Pogba, Fred and Andreas Pereira, Mourinho views Matic as his only reliable option. The Portuguese failed to feature Pereira in the aftermath, with £52 million signing Fred also warming the bench.
Matic doesn't bear the blame alone. Mourinho’s change in style doesn't suit him. The Special One now plays a more attractive style of football. In so doing, his already shaky defence is further exposed. Consequently, Matic is caught between a rock and a hard place. The Serb is expected to provide extra cover for a defence that has already shipped 21 goals in the league this season. As the deepest lying midfielder in United’s 4-3-3 setup, he's also tasked with assisting in the transition to attack. The latter isn't easy when you're always sitting just outside your own 18-yard-box.
Manchester United field volatile players whose form is in a state of constant flux. When they cannot depend on their few reliable players, Matic among them, problems arise. The Red Devils will hope to kick on against Crystal Palace following the international break. Roy Hodgson's squad has problems, too, fighting off relegation. It's a game United should win. More difficult matches against Arsenal and away to Valencia and Liverpool follow in early December, though. Nemanja Matic at his best will be needed for those contests. Now is the time for Mourinho to give him a rest.