Revealed: How Jose Mourinho exploited Roman Abramovich’s sentimental side to pull off Matic coup
"Depends on what was happening behind closed doors," said Jose Mourinho. "It looks like something was happening because his agent told me you can have him if you pay and we have him."
Who would have thought in a transfer window which has seen Premier League deals of more than £1.1billion with records smashed and the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Wayne Rooney and Alvaro Morata change clubs that the key move would be made by a 29-year-old holding midfielder who was deemed limited in his passing, over the hill and surplus to requirements?
Nemanja Matic’s switch from Chelsea to Manchester United is the shrewdest signing that Mourinho has made during his time at United. On the evidence of the Serb’s contribution in the thumping 4-0 home win against West Ham United, which opened United’s campaign, then he provides the ballast to launch his new team and de-stabilise further his previous one.
Mourinho knew what he was saying when he talked, after the West Ham game, of "something happening" behind the scenes at Chelsea and he has been able to exploit Antonio Conte’s attempt at a power grab at his former club and also, because he knows what he is like, Roman Abramovich’s sentimental side.
Make no mistake. For all the gnashing of teeth from Chelsea fans, for all the public suggestions from Conte that, in some way, Matic was sold against his will he did not want the midfielder any more. Conte felt that, going into his 30th year, Matic had seen his best days and had lost a little hunger and desire.
Beyond that Conte also believed the player was too limited, not mobile enough not good enough on the ball. Fair enough, that was his opinion. To Conte’s mind, and he may well be proved right in this, signing the younger, more dynamic Tiemoue Bakayoko from Monaco for a similar fee as could be realised for Matic represented a significant up-grade for Chelsea.
Problem was United were the strongest bidders. Matic, contrary to opinion, was not agitating to move but knew he was not in the head coach’s plans and so, reasonably enough, thought it best to accept the situation.
But he also likes his life in England, his town-house in Fulham, and wanted to stay in the Premier League. He also enjoyed a strong relationship with Mourinho and – crucially – United were willing to pay the asking price. Which is where Abramovich comes in. In a sense the sale of Matic to United is similar to the Russian billionaire granting Petr Cech his £10million move to Arsenal in 2015 after Mourinho had made the decision that Thibaut Courtois would be his first-choice goalkeeper. But it may prove far more damaging to Chelsea.
Mourinho did not want Cech to go and certainly not to a Premier League rival but this is where Abramovich decided that such a loyal servant of a player, who had achieved so much, should be granted the move he wanted. It was similar, although not quite the same, for Matic although there was a continuing bottom line to this deal: United represented the only option. There was talk of Juventus, even Inter Milan, but it did not really materialise. And certainly not at the level United were willing to pay.
And so the deal was done. It was not made with a fanfare. It was known that United were in for Matic a couple of months ago, after they had tried to sign Eric Dier from Tottenham Hotspur, and in truth the reaction from the club’s supporters did not hit the heights of excitement reached when Lukaku was brought in from Everton for £75million.
But football is about the team. About the pieces of the jigsaw and for all his faults, for all disappointment last season that Mourinho’s football was functional and little more at United, he knows how to build a team and is a master at it. He knew that Matic, younger than Michael Carrick, more aggressive also, could possibly unlock the potential alongside him in Paul Pogba in particular who would be relieved of defensive duties.
Mourinho deserves further praise. Matic was poor in Mourinho’s final season at Chelsea and even suffered the ignominy of being a substituted substitute after he came off the bench during a 3-1 defeat to Southampton and was sent off a few weeks later against West Ham.
But Mourinho knows what he is capable of and that was demonstrated most emphatically in the way Matic ‘created’ United’s first goal against West Ham as he closed down and dispossessed Pedro Obiang, when there was no danger for the visiting team, finding Marcus Rashford who found Lukaku who found the net. It was a blur of counter-attacking brilliance and Mourinho will have nodded his head in satisfaction. Matic is the player who plays the pass before the pass that leads to the goal. That is what he is and he delivered the best midfield performance of the opening weekend.
No-one should get carried away, yet, a Mourinho also pointed out. United finished 24 points and five places behind Chelsea last season and for all the uncertainty at the champions it is a significant gap to bridge. Chelsea have also sold players to United in the past – Juan Mata for £37million, sanctioned by Mourinho, in Jan 2014 – but as fine a player as the Spaniard is never was a vital cog. Matic can be. Chelsea have undoubtedly strengthened a rival but it is not a move that Conte can distance himself from either.