Nemanja Matic has started brilliantly for Manchester United. His poise in midfield makes him appear an unflappable presence. He has allowed Paul Pogba to attack with more freedom, and given United some much needed protection in defence when Phil Jones is there, lurking with a mistake. Ahead of him, he has given a boost to Romelu Lukaku with his constructive and reliable passes. Matic is not the only factor in United’s rapid improvement so far this season, but he is undeniably a crucial one.
His presence has helped United in other ways. He knows how Jose Mourinho works, and has been able to adjust to life at Old Trafford much quicker than any recent midfield purchase. Bastian Schweinsteiger had a similar amount of experience, but could not cope with the demands of the Premier League. Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba all show promise and have their uses under Mourinho, but it took them time to settle when they first arrived.
His experience has helped in the tougher games so far, such as the wins over Southampton and Everton. His size, too, means that United now have the upper hand not just with talent, but with their strength. They can impose themselves on the opposition if required, just as classic Mourinho sides have in the past.
But still, United are scouting for more midfielders. Saul Niguez is regularly linked with a move to Old Trafford, and Mesut Ozil appears to be getting encouraging noises from United over the possibility of an end-of-season free transfer. The problem is not Matic’s. Should he continue to play as he has for the last few seasons, then his place in the United team is assured. His pace is no part of his game, so the next few seasons should be his. The pressure, then falls onto other United midfielders.
Fellaini is clearly Mourinho’s pet. It doesn’t mean that he didn’t have a price over the summer, but whatever offers were made, he remained. His manager has a use for him at some point of almost every game. Should United be chasing a game, he is a handy battering ram. While awful at taking half chances in the area, he can cause his own kind of havoc when defenders, and the ball, are drawn to him.
Pogba is far superior in every way. He is a towering figure like many of United’s new signings, including Matic, but that is only a minor part of his threat. His shots from distance, long balls, and technical skill combined with exceptional confidence, mean that he should grow into one of the best midfielders in the world over the next season.
However, this is only of use to Mourinho if he can call upon the players that he needs. Right now, that is becoming increasingly difficult. Pogba may be out until halfway through November following a troubling injury to his hamstring. Michael Carrick has been given, ‘no chance,’ of making an appearance against Crystal Palace on Saturday. Fellaini missed the match against CSKA Moscow, and is still a doubt following a nasty challenge from Shane Long last weekend.
That means that attention will shift again to Ander Herrera. Herrera has featured as the injuries have mounted up, but it was clear that Mourinho sees Pogba and Matic as his first choice, and that there are more circumstances that he would prefer to use Fellaini in a two-man midfield than there are for Herrera.
Herrera will, presumably, be called upon should United make the latter stages of the Champions League, and when they come up against title rivals. His cynical efforts are precisely the kind of thing that Mourinho looks for in these matches. Herrera can concentrate all his talents into clogging, racking up as many fouls as possible while trying to avoid yellow cards, diving, generally being objectionable on the pitch, and occasionally going near the football should it be absolutely unavoidable. His intelligence on how to play to the rules, swapping with Henrikh Mkhitaryan at the Europa League final to avoid a potential second yellow should Ajax break forward, is obvious. It does, however, exceed his footballing talents.
Herrera is likely to partner Matic tomorrow against Palace. It should be an easy game, but there is no let up in expectations and demands on United as Manchester City continue to rattle in goals. City take on Chelsea as soon as the 3pm games finish, so a win for United would give them a chance of establishing a lead at the top before the league take a break for an international weekend.
There is a degree that Herrera did well last season because the rest of the side were so dysfunctional that many of his limitations were hidden by United’s malaise and their slapstick performances. After another season of heavy spending, that’s no longer the case – United look like United again, and they have a dynamism that had been lacking since the decline started under Alex Ferguson. But that is at risk now as their best midfielders have dropped off with injury, and the demands of European, cup and league competition are already starting to take hold.
United should go into the international break top of the league. But they will emerge from it against Liverpool, almost certainly without Pogba, and with the focus back on Herrera. He has struggled to find his role in this new United side, and Mourinho will happily spend again if he can bring in better players in the summer. It is no crisis yet for Herrera, but his situation is no longer as comfortable as it once was.