Inside the Deal: How Manchester United Landed Nemanja Matic from Chelsea
In one transfer the reigning Premier League champions have seen their squad weakened while simultaneously strengthening one of their title rivals.
Matic is exactly what United have been missing. He protects the defence with an amazing sense of danger, and his perfect positioning makes him one of the best central midfielders in the world.
As United fans purr with excitement and Chelsea followers curse their transfer business, I have been taking a look into how his move to Old Trafford was able to come to life.
I discovered that Matic, Antonio Conte and Roman Abramovich all played their part...
His Final Year at Chelsea
Things were looking great for Matic in the first half of last season.
His second spell at the club had been more enjoyable than his first, and the £21 million paid to Benfica to bring him back was seen as money well spent.
He was a regular Chelsea starter and racked up seven assists by the end of November. His form was key as Chelsea began a remarkable winning streak that would eventually lead them to the title.
But as Cesc Fabregas made his gradual emergence in the second half of last season, Matic suddenly had to fight for his spot. By the end of the season, he was not sure where he stood.
"No player in Chelsea's 2016-17 title-winning side played badly, but if there was an obvious area to upgrade come the summer, it was Matic's position," explained B/R analyst Sam Tighe.
Doubts over the Future
Matic had thought about leaving Chelsea before.
At the beginning of the 2016/17 campaign he had been weighing up whether he should find a new club.
Before the first game of last season against West Ham, Conte was left stressing to the press that he felt Matic was a vital player to the club. It was only soothing words from the Italian that encouraged him to remain at Stamford Bridge for what would be another title-winning year.
But as the campaign unfolded, Matic did not become any more sure about whether he was at the right club.
He had been in contract negotiations with the Blues, and those talks dragged on for the entire season.
Sources suggest he was not a huge fan of Antonio Conte's style of management. And despite the encouragement from his boss at the beginning of the campaign, he suspected Conte would not be particularly worried about losing him.
Matic was aware the club were trying to sign Tiemoue Bakayoko from Monaco, and he did not want to stand by and watch a new partnership with N'Golo Kante develop from the sidelines.
The Decision to Move Clubs
"Significantly outshone by Kante and far from his best levels, the decision to bring Bakayoko in at the Serb's expense was an entirely logical and justified one," explains B/R's Tighe.
People ask why Chelsea sold Matic, but the player knew his role at Chelsea had become limited.
He decided the best choice would be to move on, so the club worked to make the most of the situation.
Conte knew Matic's strengths but was aware of the flaws in his game too. Chelsea had identified Bakayoko, and felt if they could get £40 million for Matic, it would prove good business.
Simon Johnson, Chelsea correspondent for the Evening Standard, believes Matic was also struggling to convince the supporters of his place in the team.
"Unlike with other players at Chelsea who had suffered at the end of the Jose Mourinho era, Matic never really regained the support of people at the games. He was one of the players you'd see targeted for criticism by the fanbase."
Chelsea believed they could move on without Matic and, at the age of 29, he could still command a good fee.
Conte was not against the idea either, sources have assured me. Though the manager perhaps did not expect him to join a direct rival.
The Blessing of Abramovich
Juventus were expected to bid for Matic over the summer. They did touch base over a potential £35 million offer, but the follow-up contact never arrived. This opened the door to United.
They had already beaten Chelsea to the signing of Romelu Lukaku, and while some felt that may stop the Blues from dealing with United, it simply meant they would definitely not let him leave on the cheap.
His price was set at £40 million and if United wanted him, they would have to pay it.
So when United put the offer on the table, owner Roman Abramovich gave the go-ahead.
There are two main reasons why it was allowed to go through.
The first is obvious: United met the asking price. Second, though, Abramovich was satisfied that Chelsea had enjoyed the best years of Matic's career and, after two titles in three years, he deserved the move he wanted.
"Taken in isloation, it is great business," Johnson said. "They sold a 29-year-old for £40 million and signed his direct replacement, who is seven years younger. That is classic Chelsea in the modern era."
Chelsea feel Bakayoko is going to be a better, more agile player as they move forward.
A Perfect Fit
Mourinho had been outspoken about his criticism of Matic in Chelsea's miserable 2015/16 season and has even knocked him down in front of teammates at times.
This was why some inside Stamford Bridge never thought Matic would be keen on a reunion with the Special One.
But Matic actually had his head turned by Mourinho ahead of his second-year project at Old Trafford. He was assured he would be central to their plans for the season.
United were showing him the love he was no longer feeling at Chelsea—and on the pitch he knew exactly what would be expected of him. On his full debut against West Ham on Sunday, millions of viewers watched him thrive in new surroundings as United recorded a 4-0 win.
The display sparked immediate debate over whether Chelsea had made a big mistake. Some even questioned whether he could prove to be the bargain of the season.
Over in West London, though, most are taking this moment in their stride as they wait for Bakayoko to make his own impact.
As one Chelsea source told me: "Yes, Matic was good against West Ham, but let's not judge him as a resounding success after one Premier League match.
"We all know he is capable of impressive performances. Let's come back and see how this whole situation looks in a few months' time..."