Chelsea’s best period came arguably in the era of Mourinho-I. What set that team apart from all the others in the world was the sheer quality of that team’s midfield. That midfield, comprising of Lampard, Ballack, Essien and Makelele, with Mikel, Diarra and Geremi chipping in, was strong enough to bulldoze a dozen oxen off the field, silken enough to make a saree feel shy and efficient enough to make Carnot engines look like sloths. High, reveling in their success, Chelsea chose to ignore the inevitable, replacing them when they move on. This ended up being a sucker punch in the groin for the Blues who witnessed teams come over and boss the show from midfield.
Chelsea made efforts to recover, bringing in the workhorse Ramires. Though he could run and run, and pull off a delicious and exquisite chip out of nowhere, he was not the kind of technically sound player Chelsea were lacking. In other words, Chelsea needed a water carrier in their midfield who could do the dirty work of winning back possession but could also set up a quick counter attack within the blink of an eye. The best player in this role in my eyes is Arturo Vidal, and it still amazes me that Chelsea chose not to go for him when Leverkusen had him up for sale before Juve snapped him up for peanuts (relatively!).
Mikel was slowly being integrated into the holding midfield role since the Maka days, and it was no surprise to see him start alongside Lampard and Ramires in most of Chelsea’s pivots. Despite John being an intelligent player quick to smell attacks and shut those lanes down, it was his lack of mobility and attacking influence that left something to be desired. He would shy an extra second that would shut down the window of opportunity or might go for the safer sideways pass in order to retain and recycle possession. Often attacking windows would open and close without him getting a sniff of it. This was costing Chelsea as teams like Manchester City, United, Arsenal and Liverpool had strong central midfields that edged Chelsea’s out. While Lampard is still a useful player to have around, he’s not the force he once was and it could be said he was never quite known for his defensive prowess.
Chelsea, in 2011, were after a brilliant young defender who had the physical and technical tools to be truly elite. In order to poach him from Benfica they sent them a barrel full of cash and another barrel with a young but huge unpolished diamond in it. Matic, then only just bought from MFK Kosice for a fee of 1.5 million pounds, was sent to Portugal to become a better player as Luiz came to London to showcase his swag. At that moment one couldn’t have faulted Chelsea for that move, as trading a promising youngster for a possibly elite center back isn’t a decision deserving chastisement. As drama would have it, Matic turned into an elite midfielder while Luiz is still ironing out his flaws.
This January, Chelsea realised that their title push was non-existent and that the little horse would tire off before the journey would end without the influx of a high-caliber midfielder. In came Matic once again, this time for a fee as big as Luiz commanded. Despite the huge price, it was described as a bargain by all the sections of the media that had seen the Serb in action. It was revealed that he was let go only after he personally requested the board to grant a transfer back to his beloved Chelsea. The brilliant Jake Cohen of WAGNH, broke down the financials of the Matic deal, and to sum it up for you, having signed a 5 1/2 year contract, his transfer fee (25M Euros/20.8M GBP) and his weekly wages(~70k GBP), when amortized, caused Chelsea a hit of a paltry 3.7M GBP in the ongoing year and 7.4M GBP in the five following years. This is nowhere compared to the massive annual hits the club takes due to Torres or Terry or Hazard.
That said, his performances since signing have been at a level nowhere below than that of the ebullient Eden Hazard. The moment he was signed, he instantly became the best midfielder at the club and that was well reflected in his displays. Quoting Graham MacAree of WAGNH after his Chelsea debut against Stoke :
Both Matic and Mikel are positionally intelligent, strong, good in the air and know how to recycle the ball, but when Matic wins possession or receives a pass from a defender his priority seems to be to find an attacking option rather than to retain the ball at all costs. While Mikel shields, Matic turns.
Against Stoke, Matic rarely let himself be forced backwards. Matic demonstrated that he had the discipline and the defensive ability to be a first-choice starter in the holding role for Chelsea, but his style of play also indicates that he could be an important cog in the attack as well.
The fact that Chelsea have jumped to the top of the table since signing Matic underlines the importance he has had on the team. He stands 6″4 tall and offers an additional set piece threat, with Chelsea, now with Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Luiz and Matic, surely to be a handful on set pieces. He possesses a sweet long range shot, as he displayed against Man City, that might be a key factor while deciding games where opponents shut shop in their half.
Being employed in the heart of Chelsea’s midfield, he has been performing so immaculately that his fellow midfielder Ramires’ inadequacies in his worst Chelsea season till date, have been overshadowed. Many times during the two encounters he had with Yaya Toure in the past fortnight he has dominated the Ivorian tank with amazing aplomb. He had shackled Yaya to such an extent that City’s attacks were forced to pass through the error-prone Demichelis, who fumbled and gave birth to chances for Chelsea.
His passing stats underline the fact that he has been a more proactive player than Mikel has been, having played more Attacking Zone passes than Defensive Zone passes. The only drawback is that because he tends to be slightly more aggresive, his forward passes have a slightly lower accuracy than the defensive passes.
Matic is the profile of player Chelsea have been crying out for in the last few years, and is one of the two players required to convert Chelsea into genuine title contenders. Addition of an elite striker would catapult this side into competing on all fronts and the little horse would have just as much horsepower as City’s Jaguar. Defensive midfielders on elite teams aren’t simply tasked with winning possession or preventing play going through key areas of the pitch. They have to be able to both secure the ball and then move it quickly.
Chelsea, under Mourinho, have employed a high-press with the striker and the attacking triumvirate of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian being Chelsea’s first line of defense, effectively harassing and picking at defenders’ feet. This system requires the ball to not be lost too frequently as is the case with Chelsea. This is an area where Matic is extremely useful. Rather than being efficient at merely winning back possession he recycles it in a very progressive manner. Despite this brilliant start, it is safe to assume that Matic is still only settling in, and great match-winning and match-saving performances will be expected of him once this settling period is over. Till then, we shall sit back and watch the growing influence of Chelsea’s latest star Nemanja Matic.