Nemanja Matic Should have Left Manchester United Sooner

Matic Manchester United
Nemanja Matic celebrates his stoppage-time winner away against Crystal Palace on March 5, 2018

As Nemanja Matic becomes the first player to depart Old Trafford this summer, Cameron Toh looks back on a disappointing 5-year run for the Serbian midfielder and Manchester United.

On January 15, 2014, a Premier League champion signed a 26-year old Serbian from Benfica for a reported fee of £21 million. A left-footed defensive midfielder known for not only his poise and strength but also his tactical awareness and ability to make his teammates better, this player would go on to play a key role for two league-winning sides, becoming one of the first names listed on the team sheet every week in large part due to his tackle success rate of 75% in 123 league appearances.

3-and-a-half years later, the Serbian midfielder followed his manager to a floundering league rival, signing for a reported fee of £35 million. Tasked with bringing trophies back to the club and reestablishing a winning culture in the dressing room, in his 5 seasons, all he won was a very memorable goal of the year award.

A Beginning That Made Almost Too Much Sense

This player, of course, is Nemanja Matic, who announced last month that he would leave the club at the end of the season, becoming the first of what is likely to be quite a few departures this summer. His first stop in the EPL was Chelsea, where he was a key cog in the midfield of Jose Mourinho’s league-winning squads that boasted the attacking prowess of Eden Hazard and Diego Costa. Usurped by N’Golo Kante, Matic transferred to Manchester United immediately after Chelsea’s 2016-17 title-winning campaign, reuniting with Mourinho as the Portuguese manager looked to instill his identity in United.

In many ways, Matic’s Manchester United tenure is defined by its absurdity. Starting with his arrival, the marriage between Matic and the club seemed somewhat forced. Indeed, Jose Mourinho had bought the same guy for the third time, his mercenary who would essentially serve as the on-field messenger of his orders. From a footballing perspective, Matic was expected to form a dynamic partnership with Paul Pogba in the center of United’s midfield. 

Nemanja Matic Jose Mourinho
Matic was one of Jose Mourinho’s most trusted servants at both United and Chelsea

As we all know, none of that actually came to be. Almost immediately, the then-29-year old’s fitness levels dropped and his form began to dip. After Mourinho’s sacking in December 2018, few expected Matic to stick around beyond the end of the season. However, the Serbian midfielder persevered, and 3 interim managers later, in what I consider the strangest part about his time at United, Matic ended up spending more of his career at Old Trafford than at Stamford Bridge.

Overstaying His Welcome

If I had to guess, his staying power mostly had to do with positional need. Those of us in the ARD community have been screaming for years about the need to sign a proven holding midfielder. In theory, that man was Nemanja Matic, a proven winner in England and Europe, considered one of the best defensive midfielders in the world at Benfica and Chelsea. And at times, he showed his worth. He discovered a fountain of youth during the 2019-20 season as United went undefeated over the final 14 league matches to miraculously secure a top-four berth. During that stretch of time, United were a noticeably different team when he was on the pitch. He was in the perfect position sitting at the base of the midfield, cleaning up the messes to allow Pogba and Bruno Fernandes to create on the offensive end.

However, by then, it was too little too late. And more importantly, while most of us never doubted his footballing abilities or even his fit in the team’s tactical systems, his age and fitness suggested that he could not perform that well on a weekly basis.

Matic final game
Nemanja Matic applauds the Old Trafford crowd for the final time

A Victim of Extenuating Circumstances

More than anything else, Matic’s reputation at United suffered due to the incompetence that surrounded him. Can you blame him for accepting a ridiculous lucrative extension from Ed Woodward and the board which not a single other club would have offered an aging midfielder whose game relies on his legs? Can you blame him for the failure to acquire his eventual replacement, a younger version of him whose development he could have played a key role in? As a player signed to fit the system implemented by a manager sacked 3-and-a-half years ago, it’s hard to say what the expectations even were in the first place or if they were even realistic at all.

Matic finishes his tenure at the club with 189 appearances and 4 goals in 5 seasons across all competitions. Throughout it all, he was a consummate professional, going about his business to do his best on the field and win trophies as he had in his previous stops. But as an individual, he was powerless in preventing the implosions overseen by Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and Ralf Rangnick. In an alternate universe, maybe he carries his winning experience to the United dressing room and inspires his teammates to a domestic cup title or two. But much like the Marouane Fellainis and Daley Blinds of the world, Matic’s United legacy ultimately lives as yet another symbol of the failed experiments that define the post-Ferguson era. 

All the best, Nemanja. I’m not sure if you’ll be missed, but you’ll always have the respect of United supporters around the world.

About Cameron Toh 2 Articles
Another disillusioned Manchester United supporter motivated to write about it on occasion

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