As has long been a point of discussion on this site, Inter’s most glaring weakness last season was the defense. While the club have already signed center back Milan Skriniar, and we expect them to reinforce the fullback positions as well, another way to improve Inter’s competency at the back is to sign a top defensive midfielder.
One such option could be Chelsea’s Nemanja Matić, who, in my opinion, would be an outstanding signing for the club.
Manchester United, and former Inter Milan and Chelsea, boss Jose Mourinho seems to be a huge fan of the Serbian defensive midfielder. In January 2014, Mourinho and Chelsea paid Benfica €25 million to bring Matić, once a make-weight in Chelsea’s first acquisition of David Luiz, back to Stamford Bridge.
Despite being a prominent member of Antonio Conte’s 2016/17 Premier League title-winning side at Chelsea, Matić has been linked with a move to Manchester to reunite with Mourinho ever since the Portuguese took over at Old Trafford. Those links have intensified this summer as Mourinho seeks to add a top defensive midfielder to pair with Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera to create a formidable trio in the center of the park.
Manchester United’s interest in the player puts Chelsea in an awkward position. Matić has two years left on his current Chelsea contract, meaning this summer is crucial for the club to make a decision on his future, one way or the other. If they don’t see the Serbian as a long-term part of their squad, now is the time to sell him for maximum value; however, if they want to keep Matić, it’s imperative to work out an extension soon.
With Chelsea reportedly close to signing Monaco’s 22-year-old CDM Tiemoué Bakayoko, they seem to be leaning towards the former, which makes sense. Matić could be worth up to £35 million (€40 million) in today’s transfer market, and making close to a €15 million profit is hard to turn down, especially if the player isn’t deemed crucial by Conte.
That said, it would make very little sense for Chelsea to sell Matić to Manchester United, especially if Jose Mourinho sees him as the missing piece to complete a title-challenging team. In theory, Chelsea should be much more willing to sell Matić to a foreign club than to a direct rival.
If only there were another option for Chelsea—another wealthy (albeit significantly less than United) club in need of defensive help this summer.
This is where Inter should come in. In my opinion*, Nemanja Matić would be a perfect fit for the Nerazzurri, and the side that Luciano Spalletti wants to build.
*Author’s note: Chelsea are my favorite Premier League team, and are the other club I follow religiously, along with Inter (obviously). Following Mourinho from Chelsea to Inter was how I became interested in the Nerazzurri in the first place. As a result, I’ve watched Matić very closely over the past four seasons.
Matić has won two Premier League titles in the past three seasons with Chelsea, and was an important player in both campaigns. Let’s look at why he’d be a good for Inter by analyzing his role in each of Chelsea’s two title-winning runs.
2014/15: Operating in Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 Pivot
Matić joined Chelsea in 2014, and made 17 Premier League appearances under Mourinho during the second half of the 13/14 season. His breakthrough performance came in February against Manchester City—his first ever start for Chelsea—when he eviscerated none other than Yaya Touré in a match that ended City’s unbeaten run at the Etihad Stadium.
If the Man City match was Matić’s breakthrough, the 2014/15 season turned out to be his coronation as an elite defensive midfielder. What was most impressive is the role he played in Chelsea’s side. Matić shared the pivot in Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 system with playmaking genius, Cesc Fàbregas, who’s by no means a highly-touted defensive player.
As a result, Matić often had to compensate for Fàbregas when Chelsea weren’t in possession of the ball, handling the defensive responsibilities for essentially two players. When Chelsea were in possession, Matić mostly stayed back, serving as a classic CDM, working with the back line to snuff-out counter attacks and close down on loose balls. Crucially, his defensive prowess gave Fàbregas the freedom to unleash his creative abilities, as the Spaniard racked-up 18 assists (just shy of the PL record) in 2014/15.
Mourinho’s Chelsea were the best defensive team in the Premier League over the course of the season, and Matić’s outstanding performances were a huge reason why. As a result, he earned a spot in the PFA Team of the Year.
2016/17: Matić, Kanté, and Conte’s 3-4-3
If Matić’s 2014/15 season underscored his defensive aptitude, the 2016/17 campaign highlighted his versatility. Under new manager Antonio Conte, Chelsea switched to a 3-4-3 system, and subsequently dominated the league.
In this formation, Matić partnered with the tireless French midfielder, N’Golo Kanté, and the pair were simply outstanding. In January, The Ringer published a story breaking down the partnership’s success, while it’s certainly worth a full read, here’s an excerpt:
“Over the past decade, most top teams have opted for three central midfielders in order to dominate possession in the most important part of the field. All of Chelsea’s top-six rivals field a trio, but Conte has opted to play a man down in the middle. So why does it work? N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matic can do the job of three men...
Within a midfield trio, the roles are typically distributed evenly among a destroyer, a supporting passer or box-to-box player, and a creator. But Kanté and Matic fulfill all of those roles — and then some. Kanté is a box-to-box destroyer, and Matic, who has six assists on the season, is a destructive creator.”
Source: The Ringer
Under Conte, Matić served as a do-it-all midfielder. With the 5′ 6″ Kanté at his side, Matić’s size and physicality were crucial to Chelsea in the middle of the pitch. He, along with Kanté, would win balls back, and initiate play to Chelsea’s superb wingers. With Fàbregas relegated to the bench and the role of super-sub under Conte (mainly due to the effectiveness of the Kanté-Matić partnership) Chelsea often played through either their fullbacks or Matić, relying on the Serbian to make a deft long pass. Last season, Matić had an impressive seven assists, the highest total of his career.
While he isn’t known as a goal scorer, Matić also produced one of the most brilliant strikes of the European football season against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup Semi-Final (with all due respect to Jeison Murillo, of course).
While N’Golo Kanté surpassed Matić in importance to Chelsea’s midfield in 2016/17, the Serbian still played a pivotal role for the title-winners, and did so in a season where he was asked to take on more offensive responsibility than ever before.
How Matić would fit into Inter and Spalletti’s plans
If Inter were able to bring Matić to the San Siro, it would give manager Luciano Spalletti a great option to deploy his side in any tactical way the Italian sees fit.
In Spalletti’s preferred 4-2-3-1, Matić would be able to operate in the pivot, much like he did under Mourinho in 2014/15. Inter recently signed a deep-lying creative Spanish midfielder, and while Borja Valero is no Fàbregas, he would certainly be more effective playing alongside a player of Matić’s defensive caliber, especially if doing so allows Valero the freedom to creatively control Inter’s build-up play. This formation would also allow Joao Mario to secure his place as the club’s trequartista, the position he looked best in last year.
Signing Matić would also give Inter more tactical flexibility in matches where Spalletti wants to counter an opponent’s three-at-the-back formation. The Serbian gained extensive experience playing in-between wing-backs under Antonio Conte in 2016/17, and proved last year that he can take on more of an offensive responsibility when needed.
Having spent six seasons at top clubs, Matić is a proven veteran with a winning mentality. Between Chelsea and Benfica, the Serbian made over 175 senior appearances (26 of which came in the Champions League), and has won three league titles and four domestic cups. His experience would be a welcome addition to the dressing room; and Matić could serve as an important mentor for Inter’s young midfielders, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Roberto Gagliardini, both of whom have the potential to become more complete players.
Nemanja Matić is a strong, yet skillful defensive midfielder. He’s a proven champion that has demonstrated his ability to adapt to and thrive in different styles of play and new roles. The 28-year-old would not come cheap, but would be an immense addition to Spalletti’s team. Suning has the money, Chelsea seem willing to sell. If Matić, is available Inter should sign him up. Doing so could be part of the solution to Inter’s defensive woes, and would undoubtedly help the club in its quest to return to the Champions League after next season.
Update July 31, 2017:
Well, Mourinho got his man...