The autopsies on the departures of Nemanja Matic and Diego Costa have just begun, but once we cut past the skin and pry open the cage of usual secrecy around these sorts of deals, we find that there are no simple answers.
“For sure [Matic] is a gross loss, a great loss for us.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Sky via Metro
Take the case of Diego Costa, who technically remains a Chelsea player and whose departure has dragged on for so long, Conte has grown tired of answering the same questions with the same responses. Do we blame the club for deciding to sell Costa in January? Do we blame Conte for the text in May? Do we blame Costa for agitating for a move last summer and then going public with these private conversations this summer? With everyone acting in their own best self-interest, there’s plenty of blame to be doled out at all levels.
The situation is no different when it comes to Nemanja Matic. His camp (and/or Manchester United) were quick to take control of the new narrative and shift all the blame onto Chelsea, and to a lesser extent Conte, but Matic isn’t exactly just an innocent victim here.
“Bakayoko is a good signing for us. He is very young. My idea was to give Bakayoko the right time to adapt in this league behind Matic. But now after the sale of Matic, we need to try to accelerate this process for Bakayoko after his injury.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Evening Standard
The media at large of course has eaten all this up in the classic Conte vs. Board angle. After a season largely devoid of such nonsense, there was a large hole in our lives that needed to be filled with this soap-operatic drama and we’ve certainly gotten more than our fair share of tension-inducing headlines and narratives.
When Conte says that Matic is a big loss or when he deflects questions about why Matic was sold — and the club don’t address it, like they did with the Costa situation recently — it’s easy to jump to a conclusion along those lines, of the Board selling Matic from underneath him. But Conte wanted a new signing in midfield and he wanted that new signing to play in the same team as Matic. Matic wasn’t meant to be a surplus to requirements, but he interpreted it that way.
Matic wanted to stay at Chelsea after last season, being surplus to requirements came as a surprise to him.He moves to another big club #cfc— Nizaar Kinsella (@NizaarKinsella) July 30, 2017
How do we know that it was Matic who pushed for a move rather than the club?
Mourinho thanking Matic is a good place to start, as is the story of Abramovich sanctioning the move himself like he did with Cech and Arsenal, which, in many ways, mirrors this situation.
“Nemanja is a Manchester United player and a Jose Mourinho player. He represents everything we want in a footballer; loyalty, consistency, ambition, team player.”
“I would like to thank him for his desire to join us because without that, it would be impossible to have him here.”
-Jose Mourinho; source: Telegraph
While we can’t be 100 per cent sure either way, Matic, like Costa, was on the brink of leaving last summer, too, linked already with Manchester United and Jose Mourinho, for whom he seems positively delighted to play again (“To work with Jose Mourinho once again was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down”). While he never quite admitted that in public like Costa admitted his near-move to Atletico — Matic hardly ever seems to talk to the media, let alone talk about anything remotely interesting — if we read between the lines, we’ll see a situation where Matic was unhappy and had to be convinced to stay. Conte reassured him that he had a key role, and so he did.
"I felt terrible to be subbed [off after being subbed on by Jose in that one game], to be honest. I am a man first of all and of course I felt bad at that moment. But as you know, I didn't react, I stayed professional."
"Normally some of the players react to that and cause some problems but as you can see I didn't react and showed respect for the coach and for the club and my team. It was very hard. You have to play and see how it feels."
"I knew I did the right thing when I sat on the bench. I knew I did the right thing and I am proud that I didn't react."
-Nemanja Matic; November 2016
Along comes Conte to put an arm around the fallen Spiderbeast.
"Matic is an important player for me, a very important player. In my idea of football he is an important player and he knows this. I am delighted with his attitude and behaviour and I see in him a great commitment. I know with his work he can become a fantastic midfielder, one of the best in the world in my opinion."
-Antonio Conte; July 2016
Matic, like many others in the squad, was written off among the ruins of the 2015-16 season. With Hiddink in charge, Matic had fallen behind even Mikel John Obi in the midfield pecking order.
“What he said gave me a special feeling. Like every player here, I have a good relationship with the manager. I respect what he said about me and, of course, I liked what I heard."
"It was a strange year for all of us last season. Of course, I was not happy that we finished 10th in the table but there were many things that made it hard for me, yet I can't speak about it."
"So it was important for me to know that I am a big part of his [Conte's] plans. I have been at the club for two-and-a-half years and have always given my best every day. Until I'm here, I will continue to give everything to the team."
-Nemanja Matic; July 2016
This is probably the key to understanding Matic’s situation twelve months later. He stayed in 2016 because he was set to be a big part of the team. But he saw the writing on the wall with Bakayoko’s arrival.
That of course doesn’t change the fact that Matic is indeed a big loss. Whether it was he himself who made the proactive choice to leave or Chelsea pushed him into it, we are now left searching for a fourth midfielder (who isn’t Lewis Baker or Mario Pasalic or Kyle Scott or whoever filled that gap in pre-season).
“We have Cesc Fabregas and we are trying to find another midfielder. Because now we have only three midfielders and we need another midfielder."
-Antonio Conte; source: Evening Standard
Perhaps Chalobah could have been this midfielder, or perhaps not. Regardless, he wanted more as well, and so here we are, three days before the start of the season and searching for important pieces still. The only consolation is that there seems to be plenty of intent to remedy this situation before the transfer window slams shut at the end of the month.