For all the transfer activity Manchester United have done this summer and for that is left to come, it will be the 31 July capture of the number 31 that will quietly go down as the signing that has changed the theme of Manchester United’s plight.
Whilst defensive midfielders cannot, by their very nature, set a game alight, they are the foundation upon which the flair ahead of them is built. Often times, the personnel whose terms of reference are to create the said flair and thrill are rendered nervous and therefore inhibited by knowledge of an uncertainty in the defensive third of the pitch.
At Manchester United, it is a problem that can be traced way back to 2005 when Roy Keane thought he’d had enough of the prevailing standards at the club and gave that now infamous interview to MUTV. Whisper it quietly but for a many a season since, Sir Alex Ferguson developed a sort of blind spot for the centre of Manchester United’s midfield. The watershed moment came when the legendary Scott was afforded a full season of a fully fit Owen Hargreaves in 2007/8 and so managed to form a decent midfield along with Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes.
Indeed, for most of the seasons since, United’s defensive midfield deficiency was easily swept under the carpet because Sir Alex, in his genius, managed to keep the club successful. Such was Sir Alex’s determination to downplay the specialty of the role that at one point, Rafael Da Silva was preferred to decent Academy graduate called Paul Pogba in the holding midfield role. It quickly became a moot discussion for TV pundits because the arguments for couldn’t be logically backed up by results. Performances yes, but not results!
And so when the Scott departed, with all his charms and or genius, United’s midfield suddenly became everything it really was……a shambles! In the post Fergie era, the only genuine attempt to address this deficiency came with the signing of Morgan Schneiderlin. Except that it just didn’t work out for him and for the club. Ander Herrera has since done a commendable job to restore a degree of sanity and organisation in the middle of the park but he is not quite the rock that United’s domestic and European rivals have in a similar position.
Therefore, if Jose Mourinho’s comments about creating a ‘balance’ to the Manchester United team are to be taken literally, then it can be safely deduced that he has achieved that with the capture of Nemanja Matic. It’s a conclusion that is backed by the manager’s own choice words at the unveiling of the Serbian; ‘position, stability, control’. Everything about that description speaks of an improvement to Manchester United from last season.
Again, it is unlikely that the importance of this signing will be obvious to the naked eye from the off but it is the hope of what it is going to add to what was an already vibrant, if not ruthless, attack. It should be recalled that Manchester United matched Spurs and Liverpool for chances created last season, two of the most praised sides in the attacking department last term. Unlike the pair, United were often caught out on the counter attack because of the mismatch and uncertainty of the roles of Paul Pogba and Ander Herera.
In that regard, it must have been music to the ears of Manchester United fans when they watched Matic offer these words in his first interview with the club’s media;
”In the defensive midfield position, the player needs to give balance to the team and try to control the game. That’s exactly what I try to do. I can’t say it’s more important than any other position, but you have to know every time where is the ball and when you attack, you need to know how to stop the opponents from launching a counter-attack.”
More than anything, it is what the rest further up the pitch will now be capable of, that will make for fascinating viewing. In the grand scheme of things, this fits within what Jose Mourinho has always required at all the clubs he has managed so far. From Constinha at FC Porto, to Makelele and Obi Mikel at his first stint at Chelsea to Esteban Cambiasso at Inter Milan, Lass Diarra at Real Madrid and finally Nemanja Matic for his second spell at Chelsea.
This is why it is fair to say, he has been given just about all the tools he requires to succeed at Manchester United. That state of affairs comes with its own added pressure for the manager, but from the outlook, it is already starting to feel like a game changer for Manchester United. Manchester United as is, is now more of Mourinho’s team than not. The ghost of seasons past might have finally morphed into its final form.