Just over a year ago, Jose Mourinho agreed to a £22 million fee with Benfica to re-sign Nemanja Matic, who the club have sold for £3 million just three years earlier. A move that left many people perplexed and talking about how it was bad business on Chelsea’s side, turned out to be arguably the most important signing in Mourinho’s second stint at the club and one of the best January deals ever done.
The Serb had no trouble breaking straight into the starting 11, quickly becoming an integral part of Chelsea and rarely missing a game since his debut. At 6 feet 3, Matic is like a monster in the middle of the park, protecting his back four and clearing any signs of danger. He does not back off from any tackle. Once he wins the ball, he knows exactly what to do with it and he rarely loses it or misplaces a pass. His standard is so high, that if he does get tackled or his pass is intercepted, one can hear the Blues fans moan and groan.
Matic is much more of a complete player than when he first left the club at the age of 22, this is just more proof of how important game time is for young players. This time around, he is a powerhouse in the middle of the park and has shown many times how good he is with the ball at his feet, and strong and physical – but fair – without it. When you come up against him on the pitch, the chances are he will either beat you in a challenge or a take-on, or will leave you on the floor after a big challenge. He is not the type of player that collects yellow cards every game either, that’s not to say he does not collect them at all, but he knows how to time his challenges perfectly without drawing a foul. Since his arrival in the Premier League, he has collected just 10 yellow cards in 38 appearances.
Being surrounded with lots of creative talent in the form of Fabregas, Hazard and Oscar, he does not fall too far behind them when it comes to the more cultivated side of his game. In fact, he does not fall short at all. Having completed 87% of his passes in the Premier League puts him in line with Fabregas and just behind Hazard. No one in the Chelsea team makes more passes than Cesc Fabregas who is the operating brain for this side, but his central midfield colleague comes second with just over 58 passes per game, leaving both Hazard and Oscar behind. When it comes to take-ons, there is no one better in Europe than Eden Hazard who has completed the most take-ons in all of Europe’s top five leagues, but again Matic comes up second in this discipline, showing he is not shy to beat a man with the ball at his feet. Where the Serb stands well in front of his creative teammates is in his successful take-ons statistic having completed 80% of his attempted dribbles.
Matic has cemented his place in the Premier League and is widely regarded as the best defensive midfielder in England. But is he the world’s best? For that, let’s compare the Serb to other masters of the craft in Bayern’s Philipp Lahm, who under Guardiola has made a shift into the midfield, Spain’s Sergio Busquets from Barcelona, Roma legend Daniele De Rossi and and Real Madrid legend Xabi Alonso.
We can see straight away that even in such great company, Matic looks very solid, standout even in places. The Serb is not too far behind winner Busquets (3.04) with 2.76 tackles made per game, leaving all others behind. Also when it comes to aerial duels, the Blues monster is out there with 1.57, which puts him level with Busquets (1.58) and behind Xabi Alonso (2.83). Matic is only just behind Xabi Alonso when it comes to being successful in aerial duels winning 61.11% of his duels, a stat far ahead of the others only bettered by the Spaniard at 63.79.
Matic knows when to stick his foot out and make a challenge, his timing is close to perfect and he is not the type of player that would make nasty challenges every game. Despite taking part in many aerial duels like Alonso, he draws much less fouls than the Bayern midfielder with only 1.51 fouls per 90 mins. Philipp Lahm commits close to none in this category (0.38) but also wins only half as many aerial duels (35.29) as Matic.
He is brilliant at reading the game and intercepts 2.33 passesa game, only De Rossi is better in this category (2.88). The Roma midfielder also leads with blocks per 90 minutes (0.44) but Matic is again second best, shared with Busquets at 0.24 with Alonso at 0.23. The Serb is great at tracking back and clearing danger from the box. He leads the way with almost 3 clearances per game with De Rossi at 2.79 and everyone else around 1 clearance per match.
Even when it comes to being in possession of the ball, Matic looks at home compared to the other midfielders. Their pass completion is around the 90% mark with Matic at 87%, behind Lahm (89%), De Rossi (90%), Alonso (91%) and Busquets (92%). The big Serb leads the way with take-ons at 1.52 with everyone else having completed less than 0.5 dribbles. His successfulness in this discipline (80%) is only bettered by De Rossi (83.33%) and Xabi Alonso who has completed both of his two attempted dribbles. In total numbers, Matic is way ahead with 32 take-ons compared to 5 take-ons by Lahm, Busquets and De Rossi.
In terms of chances created, the Serb is in line with De Rossi (0.70) and Busquets (0.67) with 0.71. The Bayern duo lead with 1.46 and 2.45 respectively. Matic has made 2 assists so far in the Premier League, the same number as Lahm with Busquets managing only 1.
Matic is perhaps the most complete defensive midfielder in Europe, who is good at going forward and great at holding and breaking down play. He is the anchor that keeps this Chelsea team in balance and though he is not breaking records with goals or assists, his dirty defensive work is equally important, especially in a physical league such as the English one. He has played 21 games this season and Chelsea have lost only one of those. Against Tottenham in that infamous 5-3 defeat at White Hart Lane when runs from Christian Eriksen were drawing the Serb wide, away from his normal station in the middle in front of Terryand Cahill. The one game he was not available to play due to suspension was Chelsea’s first defeat of the season away at Newcastle. This testifies something of Matic’s ability and his importance to the Blues. He is still only 26 and has a very bright future ahead of him. Already being a nightmare for creative midfielders, he has everything he needs to become the best defensive midfielder in the world.