On August 18, 2009, Chelsea FC announced the purchase of a young Serbian midfielder from MFK Košice for £1.5M. Tall, technical, and physical, Nemanja Matic was looked at by many as a potential future star in Chelsea's midfield. Nobody quite envisioned the journey he would take to get there.
As many young players often are, Matic at age 21 was more raw potential than finished product, and he was more of a flamboyant playmaker than the physical specimen we see today. A glimpse of brilliance here was offset by a misplayed pass there, and while his promise was self-evident, it wasn't enough to get him into the first team save for a couple sporadic appearances against QPR and Wigan. After being farmed out to Vitesse Arnhem, Matic was sent to Benfica in Chelsea's now famous January 2011 deadline-day David Luiz acquisition. From that point onwards, everything changed.
Converted from a no.10 to a defensive midfielder by Jorge Jesus, Matic began to blossom, running roughshod over midfields, winning the Portugese League, and nearly winning the Europa League. Chelsea, meanwhile, began to struggle, with a lack of quality and depth often requiring them to move the error-prone David Luiz up to defensive midfield. So Jose Mourinho picked up the phone, and within two weeks of the January 2013 window opening, Matic returned to Chelsea for £21 million to replace the man he was sold for.
To call Matic and Chelsea a match made in heaven would be an understatement; he was the prototypical Mourinho player, a perfect midfield destroyer who could go head-to-head with anyone and come out with the ball. Without Matic, the team was good. With him, they were ready to be a global force again. And the biggest test was against Yaya Toure and Manchester City at the Etihad.
Manchester City had not been held scoreless at their home ground since 2010. Manchester City had Sergio Aguero, David Silva, and Yaya Toure. Manchester City had, by some distance, the league's best squad. And yet Manchester City had their every move, their every pass, and their every attempt to attack stymied by Nemanja Matic on their way to a 1-0 home loss. Like Essien before him, Matic had changed the balance of the Chelsea midfield, allowing the team to stifle opponents and recover the ball easily before devastating opponents on the counter (helped, in no small part, by his playmaking ability). With him, Chelsea won every game against the big Premier League clubs and lost the league only due to an inability to break down compact defenses, a mistake that was rectified the next year.
Everyone knows that a team is more than a single player. That no matter how much success a squad has, you can never put it all down to one single change, or one single person. And yet, it was clear that Matic, more than Hazard, Costa, or Fabregas, was the real heartbeat of the team, protecting the defensive line while allowing the attack freedom to flow and flourish, unhampered by fear of losing the ball in the knowledge that the Serbian Spiderbeast would win it right back. When Chelsea's unbeaten run to start the 2014-15 season was snapped by Newcastle, it was broken while Matic was serving a one-game suspension. When they beat Liverpool away, it was with Matic covering every blade of the Anfield pitch and refusing to give them even an inch of breathing room. One thing was clear: as Matic went, Chelsea went. Given that they were top of the league, it seemed to be working very well. At least, until February 21, 2015, when Chelsea went to play Burnley.
Football is a contact sport, and nobody argues otherwise. But even the most old-school British managers would tell you that the challenge Burnley's Ashley Barnes launched into that day against Nemanja Matic was nothing short of despicable. Swinging his leg up and clattering into Matic's shin, it was the sort of tackle that not only breaks legs, but ends careers. Having escaped a broken leg, an enraged Matic got up and shoved Barnes to the ground, receiving a sending-off for his actions (unsurprisingly, Chelsea were awful after Matic was dismissed and drew 1-1). Thankfully, he himself was alright.
Or so we thought.
Ashley Barnes ran into a wall. Ashley Barnes took a great fall. But Jose Mourinho, and all of his men, couldn't put Matic together again.
After that tackle, Matic was never the same, and seemed to hesitate when going in for challenges, ease up when going for the ball, and play with far more restraint. With his imperious tackling ability now missing, he was but a shadow of his former self to start the 2015-16 season. Unsurprisingly, Chelsea began to get carved up across the pitch. Their attack began to falter, their impenetrable defense began to leak goals at an alarming rate, and their midfield was softer than a kitten's underbelly. Matic's decline wasn't the only reason for that, but he was certainly no longer the player of old, and it showed in his and Chelsea's form. Perhaps the most embarrassing moment came when Mourinho brought him on at halftime against Southampton and took him off after a half-hour cameo. The Spiderbeast had turned into the Subbed Substitute.
Antonio Conte saw something in Matic. Last season saw Matic lose his starting spot, his confidence, and, it seemed, his ability, and when he scored against Sunderland, he refused to celebrate and seemed to be gone for good. Yet while everyone else (seemingly including Matic), had given up on him reaching his former heights, the new manager refused to do so, believing that he was the perfect man to partner N'Golo Kante and anchor the midfield. So, against all odds, Matic stayed. And when the 3-4-3 came out after a couple of catastrophic team performances, Conte left the midfield to Matic and Kante, trusting that they could combine with the wing-backs to provide adequate cover for a back three while allowing the attack to flourish.
Other than for a few brief experiments, a back three had not been seen in the Premier League for many years. It's not an easy system to play correctly after all. You need amazing central midfielders, dedicated wing-backs, and solid, error-free center-backs for it to work. Having Victor Moses serve as a wing-back and David Luiz serve as the error-free anchor of the backline was scarcely believable in and of itself. Perhaps an even bigger gamble however, was trusting Matic to recover his old form in the center. If that went wrong, option two involved Nathaniel Chalobah, Oscar, or Cesc Fabregas, none of which seemed to have the ability and defensive discipline needed for such a role. It was amazing to see just how much confidence was placed in Matic, given all that had passed since the Barnes tackle.
Something seemed to change in Matic with the formation. Perhaps it was the freedom afforded by not being the only proper defensive midfielder anymore, with Kante taking up Matic's old role of primary ball-winner and key midfield man. Perhaps it was the new manager and the belief he instilled in him. Or perhaps it was a combination of that and regular first XI minutes again. Whatever it was, Matic seemed to be playing like a man reborn. Thirteen clean sheets later, including a thirteen-game win streak, a 4-0 thumping of Manchester United, a 2-0 win against Southampton, and a 5-0 demolition of Everton later, it was clear that Matic was back. Playing sidekick to Kante in forming the most dominant midfield in the league, and letting his old playmaking abilities shine (providing 6 assists through January's end), Matic seemed to have found his way back to the top, back to where we all thought he was destined to be a year ago. Back where he belonged.