Nemanja Matic has made a remarkable return to the Manchester United first team in the new year, starting four of the last five matches. Matic was seen at the start of the season by many United fans to be a by-product of Jose Mourinho’s tenure and that he would face the same fate as Marouane Fellaini, frozen out for a more dynamic midfield set up under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and that he would be eventually sold.
The Serbian did feature in early Europa League group games against Astana and AZ Alkmaar, but also appeared in a disastrous 2-0 defeat away to West Ham United in September. He did not feature at all for the club between early October and mid-December and although he had been struggling with a groin injury, not many were eagerly anticipating his return. However, injuries to Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba, on top of the limited midfield options the Reds started the season with, have given Matic a chance again.
He seems to have taken his chance with his performances at Burnley and at home to Norwich both going somewhat under the radar, as his tidy and professional work protecting the defence allowed the likes of Andreas Pereira and Juan Mata to create goals. Even goalkeeping legend Peter Schmeichel stated he would like to see Matic in the team after the 3-3 draw at Sheffield United, when United dramatically took the lead only to surrender it late on.
“They needed a player like Matic today just to sit in that defensive midfield role and calm things down.
“He’s been criticised for slowing the ball down and playing the ball backwards too many times, but sometimes they needed that in this game.”
It’s no wonder also that with Matic back in the team, United look more solid. Of the 11 clean sheets the team have kept this season, Matic has featured in eight of them. It is, however, his experience in the team that has been the main positive of his return. Not only will Matic give a calming presence on the pitch but also off it, helping the likes of Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood with their integration into the first team.
When Scott McTominay first came onto the scene in Jose Mourinho’s first season, he was learning from the likes of Nemanja Matic in his position and Matic was so impressed by what he had seen he tipped McTominay for greatness during that same season. McTominay now seems ahead of him in the pecking order but who knows if he would have developed so much since if it wasn’t for the influence from the Serbian.
One player who will be looking to benefit in the same way will be James Garner and Matic spoke after the Carabao Cup match against Colchester United about how he tries to help the younger players and that inconsistency with them is nothing new to him.
“We have to be more consistent in our games, but this is normal for a young team without experience.”
With United now playing a game every three or four days and as the season reaches its climax, the Reds will hopefully maintain a battle for the top four and go as far as possible in the cup competitions. It will be vital for this inexperienced team to have serial winners who know what it takes to get results and to get over the line.
There are rumours he may be given a one year extension, but if Nemanja Matic was to be moving on in the summer when his contract expires, he could well leave a lasting impact on some of the clubs youngsters.