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Problem-Matic? What can the towering Serb still give to Manchester United?

Manchester United signed Nemanja Matić from Chelsea at the end of July 2017 for a reported fee of £40 million. This was the second time he was signed by then-United manager José Mourinho, who had previously brought the Serbian back to Chelsea in January of 2014. Matić was captured to add some steel and aggression to United’s midfield, and he eventually replaced Michael Carrick as the club’s foremost defensive midfielder.

Carrick later retired owing to a heart condition, while Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini have recently departed the club. This leaves Matić as the most senior member of United’s midfield and he is also the only specialist defensive midfielder among those regularly in the first-team. He recently celebrated his 31st birthday which, when combined with the club’s recent promotion of academy players, calls into question his long-term future at United.

Matić also enters the final year of his contract in 2019/20, although the club has the option to extend this by another year. Prior to joining United, Matić won a number of trophies with former clubs Chelsea and SL Benfica while also playing nearly 50 games for the Serbian national team. He won the Premier League twice with Chelsea and was a prominent member of the team on both occasions, being named in the PFA Team of the Year in 2014/15.

He achieved similar success at Benfica prior to this, being named Primeira Liga Player of the Year in 2012/13 and helped them to a league title win in 2013-14, although he did end up re-joining Chelsea halfway through that particular season. This proved to be a golden period for the former Red Star Belgrade youth player, as he was named Serbia’s Player of the Year in 2014 and 2015.

Matić’s debut season at United went well for the most part, with the club finishing runners-up in both the Premier League and FA Cup. He played in 49 games in 2017/18 and opened his goal-scoring account for the club with a stunning last-minute winner away at Crystal Palace in the league in early March. This goal was later voted the club’s Goal of the Season. Matić struggled with injuries through the 2018/19 season and these underpinned United’s dreadful end to the season.

Even before this, United fans had noticed that Matic’s performance levels seem to drop whenever he is asked to play consecutive games in quick succession. This is unsurprising given his age and the club’s lack of a player to rotate him with. He has also played around 40 games a season for the last six seasons, all the while being a regular starting player for the Serbian national team. The number of games played by Matić this season will need to be carefully monitored by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his team.

His experience in the Premier League is going to be invaluable in United’s quest to qualify for the UEFA Champions League and the United manager is likely to rely upon him for large chunks of the season. Solskjaer has recently warmed to the idea of using Scott McTominay in defensive midfield and this may be the rotation option used in 2019/20, particularly in the other competitions United find themselves in.

Like Matić, McTominay offers a significant physical presence in midfield and is not shy of a tackle or getting in the face of the opposition. This makes him the most like-for-like player at Solskjaer’s disposal in the event that Matić is unavailable, as an incoming transfer for a defensive midfielder looks unlikely at this stage. McTominay also brings a more mobile and energetic approach to the role, much like the more impressive defensive midfielders in the Premier League over the last few seasons.

The same could be said of Brazilians Fred and Andreas Pereira, who have also been used in defensive midfield. This is clearly better suited to the style of play Solskjaer is looking to implement at the moment. Guiding and mentoring younger players is going to be an important aspect of Matić’s remaining time at United, much like Michael Carrick did before his retirement. Carrick, who is now the club’s assistant manager, has been tasked with nurturing the next generation, in particular McTominay, Fred, Pereira and teenager James Garner.

Being unable to guide them on the pitch himself, Carrick will turn to Matić to offer leadership to the club’s youngsters amidst the heat of battle. This echoes events in previous eras at United, where senior figures gave direction to academy players who eventually supplanted them. The older players’ playing times were gradually reduced as they were phased out and this is likely to happen to Matić, even if he ends up staying at the club beyond next summer.

At his best, Matić acts as a shield for his defence and helps United take control of the game from midfield. As one would have expected, his mobility has been reduced as the years have gone by, but he still possesses his intelligence and tactical awareness. Despite this, he is going to have to adapt his game as he gets older, much like the United midfield greats who were still key players well into their 30s. Should he be able to do this, he may earn that contract extension and perhaps stay at the club for quite some time.

Written by Shiven Nayager

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