How important will Nemanja Matic be to Antonio Conte's Chelsea?

Of all the disappearing acts that constituted Chelsea’s dismal title defence last season, Nemanja Matic’s under performance was the most inexplicable. Matic was a vital cog in the side that comfortably wrapped up the Premier League title in 2014-15 under Jose Mourinho, and was the gold standard against which all other defensive midfielders were compared. The Serb offered tremendous physical presence and bite in the challenge, together with an underrated left foot that allowed him to distribute the ball from deep and cope against opposition pressing. Last season however, he cut a timid and indecisive figure last season though he was far from alone in this malaise as Mourinho’s reign unravelled. As the cliché goes however, you ‘don’t become a bad player overnight’ and many have faith in Matic to rediscover the form that made him a firm favourite at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea fans therefore, might be cheered to hear the news that Antonio Conte is set to keep Matic at the club. Conte is renowned for his tactical flexibility and demanding nature, and Matic could prove to be an important asset. Should Conte opt for the 3-5-2 system that has served him well in previous jobs, there would presumably be room for Matic in a midfield three alongside Cesc Fabregas and N’Golo Kante. Conte tends to ask his wide players to play extremely high up the pitch to press opponents and offer attacking outlets. The 3-5-2 can frequently morph into a 3-3-4 or if he plays a flat back four, something like a 4-2-4.

 

Therefore, it is crucial that Chelsea have at least one ‘insurance policy’ in the middle of the pitch. Kante will doubtless provide a good deal of defensive security, but he tends to employ his athletic, ball-winning quality in higher areas. The former Leicester man, as last season showed, fares best in a box-to-box role where he is free to run. Matic however, is a more static player, who tends to hold his position in front of the backline. Matic and Fabregas were the midfield axis that led Chelsea to the title two seasons ago, but were often criticised for lacking legs and energy. An important turning point in Mourinho’s tenure at the Bridge was their 2014 defeat at home to 10 man Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League, with Marco Verratti, Blaise Matuidi and Thiago Motta dominating proceedings.

Chelsea lacked midfielders who could cover the ground, and Kante has been brought in to cover this deficiency. Matic will benefit from having this type of player alongside him. Moreover, the protection offered to the Blues’ defenders is of vital importance. Matic’s poor displays last year left John Terry and Gary Cahill exposed to one on one situations and through balls in behind. The pair are defenders typical of the English canon; they like to have their full backs in tight and solid protection in front of them. Both are zonal defenders who like to have safety in numbers, but Conte likes to trust his defenders to cope in these types of situation.

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Conte could even ask Matic to play as one of his back three. He played as a centre back in his first spell at Chelsea, and Conte likes defenders who can distribute the ball from deep. Leonardo Bonucci starred in Euro 2016 with his diagonal passes and witches of play, often to one of Italy’s marauding wing-backs. Whatever the role, Matic promises to be an important player in the Italian’s first season at Stamford Bridge. Rivals Manchester United and Manchester City do not have the same wealth of central midfield options. United in particular, look especially top-heavy. Chelsea look to have a good balance and variety of options, and Matic will be an important part of Conte’s masterplan.


Featured image: All rights reserved by Aleksandr Osipov

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