Why Jose Mourinho was so desperate to sign Nemanja Matic as he will be the base for Manchester United to play from

The Portuguese has always put such emphasis on his holding players and that is no different at Old Trafford

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Monday 31 July 2017 16:34
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Premier League transfer round-up: Matic moves from Chelsea to Man United

When finishing the usual forensic analysis of his squad for summer transfer planning, Jose Mourinho last season decided he wanted to enhance five areas of the Manchester United team, but there were two specific positions he saw as higher priority than the rest.

One was obviously a goalscorer, and that has now been sorted with the signing of Romelu Lukaku - amid some sensation. The other was by many accounts even more important to Mourinho, the task he is most concerned with.

That was the pursuit of a defensive midfielder, a fulcrum, and was about so much more for the Portuguese than just necessarily filling a position in his team. It was about filling one of his real key positions, from where so much of the manager’s idea of football emanates.

Mourinho believes the pinpointing of the right individual for that role was “essential” in all of his best teams, and feels one of the major problems United had last season was that there was not enough balance in central midfield due to the lack of a natural holding player. That had more of an effect than just an improvised midfield. It meant the defence was much more exposed, and ensured attacking players - particularly Paul Pogba - didn’t quite have the same freedom he would have liked, or even the same assurance, so they could more willingly go forward.

Mourinho’s defensive midfielders offer that “balance to the team offensively and defensively”, but also so much more. These are the players he has variously described as his “tactical leader”, his “assistant coach on the pitch” and who he most charges with interpreting and applying the manager’s approach. They are the centre of the most organised part of the team, and are absolutely key to releasing the more expressive players in the team, allowing the whole side a greater fluency.

Even another of Mourinho’s true loyalist lieutenants in Didier Drogba recognised Claude Makelele as “the essential element” in their 2004-06 Chelsea side.

Manchester United have now signed Nemanja Matic for £40m and whether he prove as successful for United as Porto’s Costinha, Internazionale’s Esteban Cambiasso or Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso remains to be seen. But it is easy to see why Mourinho has signed the Serbian, even if he is not quite as deeply great as his predecessors for the Portuguese. The simple fact is that the United manager trusts him.

Matic knows what Mourinho expects from their time together at Chelsea, and already deeply understands the manager’s call-card words to his defensive midfielders of “position, stability, control”.

All of this is precisely why the Portuguese wanted to sign a player who did not require any time to adapt so that United can begin firing straight away, and to offer something more than just sitting and holding. It is about that player understanding, as Mourinho first began to comprehend himself with Costinha, his first great defensive midfielder at Porto in 2003.

“He was an essential player because he spoke to me a great deal, and he liked to understand the practices, the whys and wherefores,” Mourinho told biographer Luis Lourenco. “Thus, I had thought that in my absence, Costinha would be a vital player, as he would convey my ideas on the pitch. Costinha would basically be my ‘assistant coach’ on the pitch.”

Mourinho called Makelele the 'tactical leader' of his Chelsea team

Mourinho has offered similar words about all of Costinha’s successors, and they offer insight as to why he sees this as such a crucial signing now, why it could be so transformative for the team.

Of Makelele: “The emotional leaders are [John] Terry and [Frank] Lampard. The tactical leader is Makelele.”

Of Alonso: “He already acts like a coach when he is on the field.”

Of Cambiasso: “He thinks quickly and is tactical, he knows everything about football. He encourages teammates to press and helps the defenders in the centre... he reminds of Fernando Redondo.”

The last quote feels especially relevant to United, given that it is what both the team as a whole and players like Pogba as individuals need. They needed a player in that position who has the solidity to protect them but also the intelligence to signal when to push, when to spring the rapid counter-attacks that have really marked Mourinho’s best sides apart.

For a United side that were last season so often withdrawn, uninspired or just awkwardly ill-fitting, it is hoped that Matic will instantly allow the side to be solid but also be solid much higher up the pitch, while freeing up those more creative players.

At £40m, Matic has not come cheap, but Mourinho clearly believes that his signing was a necessity.

His arrival might not be the finishing touch to Mourinho’s United, but will be the building block of so much.

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