Nemanja Matic: The most important piece of Mourinho's Chelsea puzzle
Since Chelsea were bought by Roman Abramovich in 2003, you can trace the team’s style accurately simply by assessing the player used in the deepest midfield role. That player hasn’t always been the team’s heartbeat, but it’s somehow summarised their approach.
Claude Makelele was that role’s first incumbent, and drew an incredible amount of praise for his limited but effective playing style. Makelele rarely advanced up the pitch and never played flashy passes, but he was one of the most disciplined defensive midfielders the Premier League has seen. His passing was simple but precise, his positioning meant he covered for the attacking runs of the other midfielders and the full-backs, and his ball-winning was effective without him needing to make crunching tackles. In a sense, he was the archetypal defensive midfielder.
Following Makelele’s decline and eventual departure, Chelsea usually relied upon John Obi Mikel in that position. He was theoretically a more creative player than Makelele, but always seemed restricted at club level compared to the perception of him as a youngster. He wasn’t as reliable as Makelele in his defensive tasks, and summed up the period between Jose Mourinho’s two spells: perfectly useful, but somehow lacking in conviction.
There were periods where others filled in, and Oriel Romeu’s role under Andre Villas-Boas was also typical: young, promising but ultimately not quite ready.
Now, Chelsea can depend upon a top-class holding midfielder once again, in Nemanja Matic. The Serbian holding midfielder returned to Chelsea a year ago and immediately demonstrated that he’s a complete all-rounder, the first Abramovich-era holding midfielder to mix excellence in both physical and technical aspects of the game. Matic breaks up play ferociously and is powerful in the air, but he’s also an excellent distributor of the ball and can storm forward into attack, qualities rarely seen from Makelele.
Matic’s all-round nature is explained neatly by his top-three positioning in two completely different statistical measures at the midway point of the Premier League campaign. In terms of distance covered, only two players have ran further: Stoke City’s Steven N’Zonzi has run 215km, Cesc Fabregas is on 213km, while Matic is third, on 210km. He covers a huge amount of ground, and it’s interesting that Fabregas is above him – the Spaniard tends to sprint forwards into attacking positions, while Matic covers the space behind.
A midfield giant
In terms of passing, too, Matic is right up there – although again behind Fabregas, who lead the way on 1,563 passes. Yaya Toure (1,478) is second, while Matic is on 1209. He keeps things ticking over from that deep-lying midfield role, and Mourinho loves him.
“At this moment, he’s a giant,” the Chelsea manager said earlier this season. “Not for his size, but for the way he plays. The man is a giant.”One of Matic’s outstanding displays this season was in one of Chelsea’s least memorable matches – a goalless draw away at Sunderland. Matic’s qualities with and without the ball were obvious, though – he made a succession of tackles, across a very large area, and he misplaced just five of his 100 attempted passes.
Matic’s ball-winning is impressive because he so often recovers possession high up the pitch, inside the opposition half – which is perfect because Mourinho wants Chelsea to be proactive, rather than the counter-attacking outfit of his first spell in charge. The home victory over QPR was a good example – Matic’s tackles were in advanced zones, and he’s not scored to make fouls to break up counter-attacks either.
Alternatively, he can be more reserved. Chelsea didn’t press intensely at Stoke recently, at the start of a busy Christmas period. Instead, they sat deep and controlled the game having gone ahead early through John Terry’s header. This time, Matic’s tackles were usually inside his own half.
But when needed, Matic can be an attacking force – in the 6-3 win over Everton at the start of the season, he grabbed a goal and an assist in the same game, something Makelele never managed.
That all-round ability is crucial to Chelsea’s style, and it’s no coincidence that their only defeat of the season was away at Newcastle – the only game Matic has missed, through suspension. Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa have been in great form, but Matic might be Chelsea’s most important player. He’s the most complete holding midfielder Chelsea have had in the Premier League, and this is their most complete team, too.