Nemanja Matić is best remembered in England as being a virtually anonymous Chelsea midfielder who was quickly moved out on loan to Vitesse and then sold to Benfica as part of the deal that brought David Luiz to Stamford Bridge.
But since moving to Portugal, Matić has become remarkably influential in midfield, showing great tactical flexibility and poise on the ball. Last season in Europe, the Serbian midfielder showed not only an ability to move the ball quickly and with precision, but also to defend well and provide extra cover for the back line. He is comfortable both in a box to box role and as a withdrawn midfielder. When playing in a withdrawn role, Matić not only serves as cover for the back four but also an effective deep lying playmaker.
Matić arrived at Chelsea during a period when the squad was not yet in transition and younger players were not being given the opportunity to excel. His play in Portugal has reportedly even seen him linked with a return to his former club whose vulnerability in central midfield was exposed this week in conceding three goals in consecutive away matches.
Manchester United have had a real difficulty finding a decent midfield compliment for Michael Carrick and even more trouble when Carrick is injured. David Moyes’ lack of viable options in the middle of the pitch have been exposed by the last three opponents Manchester United have faced — all three have employed a tactic designed to stretch the Red Devils midfield into positions where they are at a disadvantage both covering and moving the ball. United’s lack of consistent midfield width has not helped either and while signing Matić won’t do anything to immediately address that, it would sure up the central midfield.
David Moyes may have a hard time signing Matić after a similar player he knows well, Marouane Fellaini, was bought at the price of £27 million this summer from Everton. But Fellaini has yet to prove a viable option for a side whose title hopes are dangling close to extinction.
United faces a favorable run of fixtures before the January transfer period opens but will likely still be somewhere from 7 to 9 points behind the leaders (presumably Arsenal) when the schedule turns daunting again with a New Years Day visit from Spurs.
So with little remaining margin for error if United wants to retain any shot at repeating as Premier League winners, signing Matić or a similarly styled midfielder is essential. Fellaini doesn’t seem to have the dynamism or range of passing movement to compliment Carrick in the way required for the Red Devils to be successful.
Matić is one of a handful of top midfielders on the continent Manchester United will need to look at trying to acquire this January.