One of the smartest moves Chelsea made in the last few years was re-acquiring Nemanja Matic from Benfica in January 2014. It wasn’t a true buy-back event, more of a gentlemen’s agreement, but still a transaction that underscored the usefulness of retaining interest in prospects who may be late(r) bloomers than most. Matic was integral to the next two league titles won by the Blues, forging a useful midfield partnership with Cesc Fabregas in 2014-15 and an even more robust one with N’Golo Kante in 2016-17.
Chelsea then made one of the least smart moves of the past few years and let Matic join Manchester United. It wasn’t a completely rotten deal at £40m, but it left the Blues reliant on Tiemoue Bakayoko at least a year before that was supposed to happen. Conte wanted Matic to mentor the incoming young midfielder, and was hoping to persuade “The Spider” to stay another season just as he managed to do so the summer before. Alas, that didn’t work out and Conte took the blame. Others blamed the Board.
But it turns out that Matic had his mind made up well before Bakayoko arrived, well before Conte tried to convince him to train his own replacement, well before the season ended, even well before the title was won.
Mourinho to MUTV: 'Matic, last March 2017, he told me "I want to play for you, I want to play for Manchester United and I'm going to do it." And he make it happen.' #mufc— Samuel Luckhurst (@samuelluckhurst) May 1, 2018
We had already known that Matic was instrumental in making last summer’s move happen — Mourinho specifically thanked him for it at the conclusion of the transfer — but the extent of the 29-year-old’s desires wasn’t clear until now. (Assuming Mourinho’s telling the truth; MUTV would presumably not be his platform of choice if he were just trolling us.) Sure, Chelsea could’ve forced him to stay, but that’s not part of the club’s m.o. and it’s not beneficial to anyone involved, especially if he started to motivate the deal a couple months before the end of the season.
Is it any wonder his form dropped in the second half of the season? In the final third of the Premier League campaign, he started just 8 of 13 games, finishing just 5, and adding 3 more substitute appearances while completely missing the last 2 games of the season. He then played a wholly disappointing hour in the FA Cup final. By contrast, in the first two-thirds of the season, he started 22 of 25, finished the full 90 in 18 of those (including 11 in a row at one point) and missed just 1 match completely. Coincidence or not, Matic was not the same player once spring had sprung.
You might say this doesn’t matter, not anymore, but it’s important to set the record straight. Both Matic and Costa were significant departures over the summer, and the players themselves appear to have largely escaped blame. And they probably should not have, even if the blame itself doesn’t change anything.
So yeah, thanks a lot, Nemanja.
Meanwhile, the task for Chelsea now, more than ever, remains to ensure that Bakayoko can make the necessary improvements to replace and perhaps become even better than Matic and form the new solid core of the team for years to come.