The midfield destroyer, the hard-man, the water carrier, however you want you term it the role of a holding midfielder has changed remarkably in recent history. That is not to say that the role has diminished in its importance to any team, if anything it could be argued that it is now one of the most vital positions for any manager to fill successfully.
The progression from the aggressive midfielder into a more cultured player who could not only win the ball but could also dictate his side’s style of play seems to have found it’s roots in France. Didier Deschamps began the process and some would argue that his compatriot Claude Makelele perfected it to the extent where it became known as “The Makelele role”. Indeed, the former Real Madrid star became a key part of Jose Mourinho’s machine like Chelsea outfit during the Portuguese manager’s first spell at the club. Makelele may well be long gone and Mourinho has returned to Stamford Bridge after spells with Inter Milan and Real Madrid but the French mid-fielder’s legacy lives on in the form of Nemanja Matic. Or does it? Is the Serb about to re-brand that position “The Matic role”. Certainly Blues stalwart John Terry seems to think so as he recently commented “”When I look back at the days when I first came here, you had Claude Makelele, who was the master in that position. Matic is the closest thing we’ve got to Makelele and he’s doing great for the team!”
Much like his manager Matic is in his second spell with the Blues, although unlike Mourinho, Matic was largely unheralded during a two year stint at Stamford Bridge from 2009 to 2011. However Matic formed a fearsome reputation on the continent as he moved to Benfica in a deal that saw defender David Luiz head to Chelsea. Arguably it could be said that the Portuguese club got the best of that deal as Matic became a key cog of As Aguias side. Indeed the midfielder has a lot to thank Benfica and their manager Jorge Jesus for as he was moulded from a play-maker into a holding midfielder.
In essence Jesus had begun to mould the perfect midfielder blending power and strength with creative vision and no end of ability. Matic was a big success at Estadio De Luz and success quickly followed. His first season saw the midfielder play a key role in the club’s Taca de Liga (League Cup) win and that was followed in his second season by runners up places in both the Taca de Portugal and the Europa League as his former club Chelsea lifted the trophy thanks to Branislav Ivanovic’s late winner.
Personal plaudits followed too. Matic was named Primera Liga Player of the Year in July 2013 and the following January he came second to Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the Ferenc Puskas award, FIFA’s reward for the scorer of the best goal of the year.
His form at Benfica brought Matic on to the radar of Chelsea and Mourinho and the January 2014 transfer window a move back to Stamford Bridge as a fee of £21m was agreed between the two clubs. A low key return to the Premier League saw the midfielder ease his way back but he is now an essential part of any Mourinho line-up.
His importance to the Blues can clearly be seen by the fact that their first league defeat of the 2014/15 season came in Matic’s absence at Newcastle United. The Magpies took advantage of a Blues midfield that was full of creativity but seemed to lack the heart for a battle, clearly reeling from the absence of the suspended Matic.
Makelele performed the same role for Mourinho’s Blues as his cool, calm but powerful style of play allowed the likes of Arjen Robben, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba to strut their stuff. At the back John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho formed a brilliant partnership but were also given protection by the cool head of Makelele.
Matic has slipped seamlessly into that role and for all of Chelsea’s undoubted class he is for me the most vital part of a team that I can see going on to win the Premier League title. While Eden Hazard, Oscar and Cesc Fabregas are unquestionably devastating, it is the freedom that the strength and poise of Matic gives them that allows them to be at their brilliant best. He simply allows flair players to play with a clear mind and to go about their game in the way they want and Mourinho demands.
This current Chelsea side still have echoes of the first Blues machine put together by Mourinho. They have the solidity, the power and the determination but unlike his first spell they seem to have more flair and are certainly more entertaining.
Matic is coming towards the peak of his powers at 26 and while he is not quite at the ridiculously high standards Makelele set, you simply can’t rule out the Serb hitting or even surpassing his predecessor in the coming years if he can continue the upward trajectory his career is on right now.