As Eden Hazard blitzed through Arsenal’s defence in the 25th minute on Sunday, it was perhaps the defining moment in what could have been a tight match. Arsenal’s lack of central defensive midfield cover was again exposed. Yet on the touchline, Jose Mourinho was again smiling, revelling in how he had once more outthought his nemesis Arsene Wenger.
It was the sort of situation that Nemanja Matic deals with on a day to day basis. The consistency in which Mourinho’s ‘monster’ Serbian does his business is to be admired by everyone. Whether it be breaking up play, finding the right pass, winning aerial duels or just simply putting in the hard yards, Matic seems to have it all at the heart of Chelsea’s midfield.
Matic: Money well spent
When he returned to Stamford Bridge in January, many were surprised at Matic’s hefty £20 million price tag, considering his failure to break into the Blues’ first team during his inaugural stint at the club. Deep inside however, Mourinho knew that it was money very well spent. He got his man.
Since then, Matic’s performances in Chelsea’s midfield have been the catalyst in the Blues’ ominous performances this season. His physical presence was something Chelsea were craving ever since the fall from grace of Michael Essien, who now seems a distant figure at the club in which he made his name.
Is Matic the perfect holding midfielder?
It is indeed Matic’s physicality that makes him a threat. His ability to break up play with ease has won him many admirers, not least Arsenal fans who have become frustrated at Wenger’s failure to add steel to the Gunners’ midfield this summer.
But steel is the perfect adjective to describe Matic. In his first eight games back at Chelsea, the Serb made 30 tackles at a success rate of 73.33% and boasting an average of a successful tackle every 19 minutes
Yet it is this campaign so far where he has gone to another level. Before his dominating display against Arsenal, in which he ran 6.09 kilometres in the first half - more than any other Chelsea player - Matic had a tackles per game average of 4, as well as an average of 1.6 interceptions per 90 mins.
Even though Matic’s breaking up of play has impressed many, it is also his composure on the ball that is so crucial to Mourinho. There he was, against Sporting Lisbon on Tuesday night, with three players around him, nowhere to go and then, in a instant, he saw the run of Oscar in behind and slipped him in with ease. It was a masterclass of midfield play.
Matic’s averages 57.6 passes per game, 0.8 key passes per game, as well as a passing accuracy of 86.1%. And although it is not as impressive as his midfield compatriot Cesc Fabregas, it underlines the all-round balance that he brings to the team.
Matic earns the plaudits from pundits
Before Matic was it again on Sunday, Sky pundit Graeme Souness knew just how important the Serb is to the Chelsea cause: “Matic’s thoughts are not about getting on the ball and doing something really cute and clever on the ball by scoring a goal or finding a pass for a goal”, the Scot explained.
“Matic is not thinking like that. He is going on the pitch thinking that he’s going to do a job for the team and fill all the danger areas when the opposition has the ball. He gives the freedom to the other midfield players to do the damage.”
Matic is a luxury that many other teams cry out for. He allows the star names of Hazard, Fabregas and top-scorer Diego Costa to take the plaudits while he just carries on tackling, heading and passing. He ranks among the top six Premier League midfielders for tackles and headers won and clearances and recoveries completed.
Matic is key for Chelsea's title hopes
He also allows Mourinho to delve into any tactic he wishes, whether it be sitting back - much like Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with title rivals Manchester City - or just controlling the game against slightly weaker opposition. The former Benfica man’s versatility in midfield makes him a valuable asset to any side, let alone the Premier League’s title favorites.
And as Matic tackled Danny Welbeck and quickly closed down Tomas Rosicky, forcing the Czech into an error towards the end against Arsenal, Mourinho just smiled, it was the sort of performance that he has come to expect from his ‘monster’. He knows he can rely on Matic everywhere Chelsea go.
If Chelsea are to win their fourth Premier League crown this season, many of the plaudits will go to Costa’s goals, Fabregas’s assists and Hazard’s skills.
However, Chelsea fans should not forget how big an impact Nemanja Matic makes for them on a consistent basis. He could be a key figure in the 2014/15 Premier League title race.