Friday 22 September 2017

Mourinho move for Matic a new twist to his mind games

United manager sees perfect match in player he berated at Chelsea

Chelsea's Nemanja Matic. Photo: Getty Images
Chelsea's Nemanja Matic. Photo: Getty Images

Jack Pitt-Brooke

It was one of the strangest moments of the oddest period in Chelsea's modern history.

Facing Southampton at Stamford Bridge in October 2015, and having conceded an equaliser just before the break, Jose Mourinho threw on Nemanja Matic for Ramires.

After just 27 minutes of the second half, with Chelsea now down 3-1, Matic having been shredded by Sadio Mane, Mourinho hauled the Serbian back off and replaced him with Loic Remy.

The crowd booed, Matic and Mourinho ignored one another, and Chelsea slumped to their fourth defeat of the season in just their eighth game.

Afterwards Mourinho insisted that he had not set out to "humiliate" Matic.

"I do not do that to anyone in football and in life," he said, to some raised eyebrows.

However, he was happy to point out just how badly Matic was playing.

"Some of the players are in a difficult moment and Matic is one of them," he said. "He is not playing well. He is not the sharpest. He is not making good decisions with the ball."

It was one of the harshest public condemnations of a player heard during a five-month meltdown that left Chelsea's hopes of retaining the title in tatters.

And yet this week, less than two years on, Mourinho is about to spend £35m on the man whom he scorned.

In many ways, the story of Matic was the story of that whole Chelsea team.

Perhaps only Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas were more emblematic of the destroyed confidence of the team who set out to defend their title and finished up 10th.

Matic had been bought back to Chelsea in January 2014 and provided power, range and stability in the middle of midfield.

When Fabregas arrived six months later, the pair were the midfield foundation of their 2014-'15 title success.

In the summer of 2015 Mourinho decided to push his team on to the next level, to criticise them, in public and private, to spark the improvement needed to take the team on.

Matic was told that his touch and passing were not good enough and found himself in and out of the team.

He was dropped for games against Maccabi Tel Aviv, Porto, Aston Villa and Liverpool as Mourinho tried and failed to find a functioning team.

Before that game in Porto on September 30, Mourinho made clear what his issue was with the senior players who were failing to defend their title.

"When you have individuals with an unstable attitude in terms of motivation, desire and commitment, you will pay," he said.

"There are two sorts of champions - champions who win something, and serial champions. I am a serial champion in my approach and attitude. This is the problem we have at this moment. We have champions but not serial champions."

Mourinho said that John Terry and Jon Obi Mikel were off the hook, so the target of his criticism was clear. He meant the players who had arrived at Stamford Bridge over the previous few years but who had not shown the application of his team who defended the 2004-'05 title in 2005-'06.

Oscar, Matic, Hazard, Willian and Fabregas were the players Mourinho was criticising.

Matic and Hazard were dropped the next day. Chelsea still lost 2-1.

Matic's season did not get much better from there. The painful Southampton experience was four days later and he was sent off at West Ham three weeks after that.

He was in and out of the team and his confidence never recovered.

The whole story is an example of Mourinho's confrontational leadership, his attempt to hammer his players in the hope it will get them to play better.

The evidence of that explosive half-season is that, with modern, younger players, it does not always work.

Matic is still a good player, better than he was showing then, and he has two Premier League medals to show for it.

His touch and passing are fine for the role he plays and he will give Manchester United more stability in midfield alongside Ander Herrera and behind Paul Pogba. He will be an important piece in their jigsaw.

Matic is keen on the move to Old Trafford and wants to work again with the manager whose support he clearly lost before. Which shows that, in the world of Jose Mourinho, not every barb is meant to last. (© Independent News Service)

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