Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it…. Manchester United are back!
Wednesday night’s victory over Sheffield United saw the Red Devils continue their hunt for a coveted top-four spot, with the returning Paul Pogba alongside midfield magician Bruno Fernandes making the difference against a depleted Blades defence.
Yet, for all the talk of that mouthwatering Fernandes-Pogba partnership – and Anthony Martial’s much needed hat-trick – it was the performance of former Chelsea man Nemanja Matić that really caught the eye.
The Serbian holding midfielder had appeared to be in a steep decline after a poor 18 months prior to 2020, yet injuries to Pogba and to Scott McTominay opened the door to his return and he has not looked back since.
The 31-year-old was vital to the club’s unbeaten run prior to the league suspension, and picked up where he left off after entering the fray against Tottenham Hotspur as a substitute.
After being recalled to the starting XI at Old Trafford, the former Benfica man was imperious, completing 95% of his passes as United romped to a 3-0 victory.
Despite his fellow central midfielder Fred looking much improved this term, Matić’s performance underlined that there is perhaps no other player at the club who provides such a calming and dominant presence in the centre of the park.
While both Pogba and Fernandes give the attacking spark, they are no strangers to losing possession, with it often the job of Matić to offer a more simple yet effective passing machine.
Against Chris Wilder’s men the 31-year-old appeared a different player, driving his side forward and actually making some positive forward passes for once – no doubt the influence of a certain Michael Carrick.
For too long has United’s midfield been filled with the much-maligned ‘hairdresser’ player – someone who just loves knocking the ball either short, back or sides – yet Matić looked the aggressive and influential force that he was at Stamford Bridge.
With Pogba and Fernandes now occupying two of the three central midfield spots in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, there will be a scrap to fill the starting berth at the base of the midfield.
Both McTominay and Fred have looked solid this season, although neither has yet to show the defensive knowhow to occupy that deep midfield role, nor the ability to retain possession consistently.
Despite rumours of a potential summer move for a defensive midfielder, with United linked with Atlético Madrid star Saul Niguez, in the short-term Matić is seemingly the perfect solution, either as part of a three or a midfield diamond.
His stature and experience are unrivaled in United’s young squad, while he is also able to comfortably balance being a rock at the back as well as often beginning many of the team’s attacks.
As the five attacking players in front of him ran riot against high-flying Sheffield, Matić provided some much-needed midfield stability, while he also frequently collected the ball from his labouring centre-backs in order to quicken the tempo.
It may have appeared a training game at times, but that was no doubt in part due to the ease at which United knocked the ball about, with Matić the centre of that controlling display.
It was refreshing to witness a United midfielder be so simple yet effective in his passing range, with McTominay often too quick to look for the ‘Hollywood’ pass, while Fred is guilty of sometimes taking one touch too many. Add to that the roaming presence of both Pogba and Fernandes, and Solskjaer is in dire need of his big Serbian to add the steel to the attacking gloss.
The two players ahead of him may get all the credit, but Nemanja Matic is arguably the most vital piece of the Manchester United jigsaw right now.