Manchester United produced the standout performance on top-flight football’s return with an entertaining 4-0 win against West Ham thanks in part to Nemanja Matic’s man of the match display.
Just over 24 hours earlier, nine man Chelsea slumped to a surprise 3-2 loss to Burnley as Antonio Conte was unable to plug the Matic-shaped hole in his midfield.
One pundit has already suggested that Matic win the PFA player of the year award this season despite Chelsea selling the midfielder to Manchester United in a £40m deal only 16 days ago.
Undoubtedly a premature statement but it was a peculiar transfer for a number of reasons – and the 29-year-old has already benefited from the summer move with his stock on the rise.
Jose Mourinho’s first-choice target to improve his defensive midfield options was reported to be Tottenham Hotspur’s Eric Dier.
The Spurs star is only 23 and is English – an important factor for the Champions League.
Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy emphatically ruled out Dier leaving the north London club and Manchester United instead turned to Matic.
The Serb is undoubtedly the more polished of the two midfielders and comes with vast experience having already won the Premier League title twice.
But it’s easy to forget that Mourinho had his eyes on another target before settling for a reliable and safe option to slot in alongside Paul Pogba.
Not a bad second-choice option to have on your transfer wish list and Mourinho gets credit for refusing to baulk at spending £40m on a player who will be 30 in 2018 despite outside criticism.
Matic’s transfer to Manchester United was thought to be contingent on Chelsea signing Tiemoue Bakayoko.
The English champions concluded a transfer deal for the Monaco midfielder in July following months of speculation. Conte had seemingly secured his number one target and Matic was free to leave.
However, in the past couple of weeks, Conte has admitted in a number of media interviews that he wanted Matic to remain at Chelsea despite the addition of Bakayoko.
Naturally, this throws up some intriguing questions: was Conte undermined by the Chelsea board or did the Italian sanction the Serb’s sale but wants to put pressure on his superiors by saying otherwise?
The Chelsea manager would have us believe the decision was taken out of his hands. Reports this week in the British media suggest that Conte had made his mind to sell Matic earlier this summer.
The third summer signing at Old Trafford has wasted no time winning over the Manchester United supporters with man of the match performances against Real Madrid and West Ham.
Countless ex-professionals have already hailed the defensive midfielder as the final puzzle piece of Mourinho’s Manchester United jigsaw.
The new addition has brought a more natural balance to the Manchester United side. Matic reads the game well, can win the ball, is physically robust and proficient in his distribution.
Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera would have been required to start alongside Pogba to carry out those roles last season. Matic now provides Mourinho with a more efficient option.
However, it’s easy to forget this was a player regularly chastised for his performances during Chelsea’s dismal title defence in 2015-16.
N’Golo Kante outshone Matic in Conte’s title-winning season last term and even a rejuvenated Cesc Fabregas was more talked about than the Serb. Some suggested Matic was past his best.
However, Matic looked virtually unrecognisable in his first two Manchester United games from the midfielder who plodded around Wembley in the FA Cup final back in May.
The Serbia international has benefited from a perfect storm encompassing a number of factors at both Chelsea and Manchester United.
Conte has naturally been quizzed about Matic’s departure. His decision to tell Chelsea fans that the transfer was taken out of his hands has only served to heighten their dismay at losing an important player to a title rival.
It’s in the forefront of their minds and the more Conte talks about Matic’s departure, the more keenly the midfielder’s absence will be felt by the players and the fans.
Chelsea were missing Bakayoko for the visit of Burnley and two red cards served to highlight the void left by Matic.
The west London side must have been watching between their fingers as Matic was the dominant player at Old Trafford against West Ham with the shock home defeat still in their system.
No wonder there was no shortage of retired Premier League stars lining up to criticise Chelsea for selling to a direct rival: “They’ve handed Manchester United the title.”
Manchester United have been lacking a dominant midfield ball winner for some time. Pogba brings the style but Matic provides the substance.
The club’s supporters haven’t hesitated to embrace Matic and who can blame them having toiled with Fellaini in midfield over the past four seasons.
Having struggled to replicate those awesome 2014-15 performances, a change of scene was the perfect tonic and Matic looks much sharper than the past two campaigns in west London.
Should Manchester United win the Premier League title and Chelsea put up a meek title defence, Matic’s transfer will be understandably touted as a turning point.
Manchester United were desperate for a combative, ball-winning midfielder. Chelsea are now in urgent need of a combative ball-winning midfielder. It could be the difference.
And Matic’s stock will continue to rise as long as Manchester United produce balanced performances such as their 4-0 win against West Ham and Chelsea flounder without their midfield pivot.
The Manchester United midfielder deserves the accolades if the man of the match displays continue but circumstances have also helped to rejuvenate the Serbian’s reputation.
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