The 1-0 win against Stoke City over the weekend marked an important milestone -- the full debut of Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matic. Our big January signing, re-acquired for Benfica for 25 million, played the full 90 minutes, and he would doubtless have been desperate to impress Jose Mourinho and the fans.
How'd he do? Let's take a quick peek at an all-touches video.
The above gives a pretty good indication that Matic had himself a very nice day. After a dodgy opening five-ten minutes, he was one of the best players on the pitch. He was aggressive with his tackling and positioning*, and his aerial ability was shown off repeatedly whenever Stoke launched long punts forward from the back. Granted, Matic couldn't win all of his battles against Peter Crouch, but he did enough to slow the Potters down, and at one point even turned an aerial duel into a serious scoring chance.
*One of the things the video doesn't show is his awareness of space and ability to deny the opposition key areas, which the full match tape demonstrates very well.
That last bit is what differentiates Matic from John Obi Mikel. Both 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.
That's good and bad. Matic is definitely going to lose possession more often than his Nigerian counterpart, who is sometimes (I'm thinking the 2012 Champions League final in particular) the only Chelsea player who looks like he cares about not giving the ball away. But at the same time, Mikel simply cannot move the ball at speed on the transition -- he's a fine passer, but he's also a mechanical one, ensuring that the ball is secured and the opposition removed from the play before trying to hit forward passes.
Against Stoke, Matic rarely let himself be forced backwards. Granted, that could be because Stoke weren't really trying to press, and if they did his immediate opponent was Stephen Ireland, so this might not be a guide to how he'll operate against stronger teams, but the point still stands -- Matic was always looking to move the ball quickly to the attacking trident.
On Sunday, 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. He'll certainly face stronger teams than Stoke, but as far as first impressions go, it's difficult to see how he could have done much better.
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