It has been a season of contrasts for Jose Mourinho’s two central midfielders. While Paul Pogba has flitted between excellence and anonymity, his performances always coming under the utmost scrutiny, Nemanja Matic has been able to quietly and steadily get on with the task at hand.
The Serb, allowed to leave Chelsea last summer in a £40m switch, has added some much-needed mettle to a previously lightweight Manchester United midfield and in a consistent debut year at Old Trafford, his reliability has won over a demanding manager.
Matic was one of two “high-level” performers to come out of Mourinho’s 12-minute monologue on ‘football heritage’ last month with any credit. The very next day, he put in a man-of-the-match display against Brighton and Hove Albion, scoring and assisting to guide United through to this weekend’s FA Cup semi-finals.
It was the type of match-winning performance many demand to see from Pogba on a regular basis but this year, the Frenchman has only delivered in glimpses. Pogba’s rousing second-half display in the recent Manchester derby is likely to be the highlight in a season of personal ups and downs, and Matic believes his midfield partner must deliver more of the same in the future.
“With his quality, personality, he needs to have more confidence, needs to take more responsibility,” the 29-year-old said of Pogba, ahead of Saturday’s Wembley semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur.
“Of course he’s still young, he can improve and he will improve and he showed in this game [against City] that he always can play better and better. He take responsibility, he scored and give to other players more confidence – after his first goal we started to believe we can do something. It is exactly what he has to do.”
“He is a great player,” Matic added. “He runs a lot, has the quality with ball, he can score, he can defend also very well.”
Yet the criticism of Pogba is not limited to what he does on the pitch, and sticklers for tradition are more likely to identify with the no-frills, clean-shaven, short-back-and-sides Serbian who plays alongside him.
Matic, for example, would never dye his hair blue. “No, I have kids – if I do that my son is going to do the same,” he said. “I have to have serious hair like Gary Neville.” There will be no dance routines as goal celebrations, either. “I’m just simple.”
The pair thus make something of an odd couple in Mourinho’s midfield, but making their contrasting styles complement each other will be key to any success in the future.
United’s year could still end with triumph in the FA Cup and a second-place finish behind the rampant champions City looks likely, but given the level of expectation at Old Trafford, Matic is not sure whether that would constitute a good year.
“It’s difficult to say if it’s enough,” he said. “I’m sure it is not, but to finish second in the league is not bad – you have six teams who want to win the title... they prepare the team, they buy players. It’s not bad but we always want more and we try to be first, but we have to be honest and say that City won a lot of games, lost only two.”
He is certain, however, that there is work to do before United can consider themselves title-winners in waiting.
Matic knows what it takes to come out on top in the Premier League having claimed two winners’ medals at Chelsea – one under Mourinho’s management – and when asked whether he sees a similarities between those champions and the current team at Old Trafford, his answer was clear.
“Not yet,” he said. “We need more – to have more experience in different kinds of situations during the game. We drop many points when we shouldn’t, and this comes with experience.
“For example, we drop points at Leicester in the last second, we lost at Huddersfield – Newcastle, it’s always difficult, it’s not first time that I lost there.
“In these kinds of games we have to improve if we want to win the title because against Chelsea, Man City, you can draw, win, lose, everything is possible, but in these kinds of games if you win almost every game you are champions.”
Tottenham and this weekend’s semi-final are more pressing concerns than next year’s trips to title rivals, though.
And even if Matic cannot recall the specifics of United’s league defeat to Mauricio Pochettino’s side at Wembley in January – “I don’t know, we play many games,” he said – he has happier memories of facing the same opponents on the same stage last year.
In the 2017 semi-finals, Matic scored the last of Chelsea’s four goals in an emphatic 4-2 victory over Tottenham, driving a thunderous strike in off the bar from around 35 yards out.
“It was a great game for my team, we won 4-2 and was amazing for me that I score that goal – I was really happy and I’ll never forget,” he said. “It’s difficult to say if [the goal is his] best, but one of maybe three best and most important goals in my life.”
The same would not go amiss on Saturday and though he has his eyes on other prizes too, Matic still wants success in the world’s oldest football competition.
“The FA Cup is very important for every team. Of course, Premier League most important in England but Cup the second,” he said. “We will try to go through and as I said in the final, everything is possible.”
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