Manchester United have suffered a huge set back in the midfield since Sir Alex Fergusson retired as the gaffer at Old Trafford. However, the new boss, Jose Mourinho looks to have found the answer to this puzzle in his second season after signing Nemanja Matic from Chelsea for 40 million
In the space of 10 seconds, Matic had shown how he can be a transformative player in this United team, offering Mourinho a presence in midfield that no United manager has had for over a decade — arguably since Roy Keane was at his pomp more than 15 years ago.
Matic is not the new Roy Keane, but he brings qualities to the Old Trafford midfield that no player has been able to provide since the Irishman departed the scene in 2005.
A defensive midfielder, Matic operates higher up the pitch than Michael Carrick and he is more athletic and dynamic than Marouane Fellaini. Ander Herrera lacks Matic’s power and game-management skills, while Paul Pogba has yet to develop the tactical awareness to be able to dictate the game from a deeper-lying midfield role.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Owen Hargreaves provided the tenacity and destructive qualities possessed by Matic, Darren Fletcher was able to offer greater goal-threat going forward and Paul Scholes had the ability to dominate a game from the central third, but Matic’s experience and presence ensure that United now have the midfield general that has been absent from their side for too long.
Having scored twice in a resounding opening-day victory, Lukaku claimed the headlines from United’s win, but Matic’s performance was the most eye-catching individual display because of what it signposts for Mourinho’s team.
Last season, United lacked energy and power in the deeper midfield area.
Carrick, now 36, made 38 appearances in 2016-17, but while the former England international was often a crucial steadying influence, his age now denies him the ability to dominate a game and dictate the tempo against a top opponent.
Mourinho has admitted he would love to wind back the clock and have a 26-year-old Carrick in his team, but that cannot happen, so recruiting a replacement became a priority.
United targeted Monaco’s Tiemoue Bakayoko, even attempting to negotiate a deal in January for the France international, but from an early stage, it was always clear that Chelsea would sign the player.
Against West Ham, aside from his contribution for Lukaku’s opening goal, Matic also gave United more dynamism by dragging the midfield base at least 10 yards higher up the pitch than last season.
In doing so, Matic gave the back four greater space and protection by keeping the opposition further away, but he also gave the team a more offensive starting position when going forward, as seen by the interception close to the centre circle which led to Lukaku’s goal.