Zero to Hero: The rise of Nemanja Matic
By Dominic Vieira
Finding the complete centre midfielder, the sort of player demanded by most manages these days, is a blistering headache; just ask David Moyes how successful his search has gone. As several clubs looked to improve their quality in the centre of the park, in particular those sitting at the top of the Premier League, Nemanja Matic was a highly wanted man this winter.
Like with most of Benfica’s signings - Matic, who joined from Chelsea as part of the David Luiz deal and was originally valued at £4m - arrived to the Portuguese capital as an outsider, a player no one had really heard of and someone who the club did not expect to sell for millions. This too was shown by the player being rejected by the club’s ‘Stars Funds,’ a fund through which investors can buy a percentage of a Benfica player’s rights.
He, on the other hand, had already completed his research before agreeing to the move and listed Aimar, Cardozo and Saviola - who at the time all played here - as world-class players. He also spoke with teammate Paulo Ferreira, a close friend of his who told him: “Benfica is the biggest club in Portugal.”
A tall, fairly slim, reserved, hardworking Nemanja Matic arrived in Lisbon in the summer of 2011, after completing his one year loan spell at Vitesse, a common path taken by developing Chelsea reserve players. In his first year he was overshadowed by Real Madrid graduate Javi Garica, as was expected. Despite showing glimpses of his ability, initially there were doubts regarding his quality, and questions arose as to whether he was the right player to replace Garcia, who at the time was being chased by many clubs. Garcia was a consistent performer and warrior in the Benfica midfield, an instrumental presence during their 2009/10 title winning year.
The following season, Matic was given the stage to establish himself as a pillar in midfield. The departure of his mentor to Manchester City on the final day of the 2012 summer transfer window, a player adored by the fans, gave Matic the opportunity to be the first choice on the team sheet.
And in no time, Matic proved his quality and demonstrated he was a far more complete player than his predecessor. He may not have possessed the power or voice of Garcia, but his intelligence and superior technical ability certainly made up for this.
And just like the Spaniard, Matic became irreplaceable, completing 90 minutes every week. If anything, that first year of adaptation was the ideal bridge for Matic on and off the field. Garcia was an exemplary role model, and unlike many foreigners who move abroad, Matic learned the local language; which really should be compulsory at any club.
Matic transformed into the representation of Benfica’s hard working midfield, the backbone charged with leading an offensive and hungry team, always calm and composed. He reads the game well, knowing when to attack and when to hold the game. And his lethal shot, which is his secret weapon, can be seen when he moves further up the field, scoring unexpected long range efforts.
Through his demanding training methods and tactical knowledge, Jorge Jesus moulded Matic into an intelligent box-to-box midfielder. He’s equally effective attacking as defending, a tower in the air and a confident player who’s never afraid to carry the ball up the field. He’s not a Carrick nor a Martinez or a Cabaye, but a player who embraces the qualities of all three.
Although last season drew to an unfortunate and bitter end when last minute goals crushed the dreams of both the fans and players, Matic was Benfica’s revelation. His performances rightfully earned him the praises and the Player of the Season award, an honour that David Luiz too received in 2010. And thus, attention from Europe’s heavyweights began intensifying as did the newspaper rumours, something which has become familiar to the top stars in Portugal.
Benfica did well holding onto their pivotal player by protecting him with a release fee clause priced at £41.5m. This too was the case with the likes of other key players, allowing Benfica to be stubborn in the market and refuse any offer below that figure. If Matic were to be sold for this fee, it would’ve been a new club record, surpassing the £32.5m received from Zenit for the services of the talented Axel Witsel - a name still missed by all Benfiquistas.
On the other side, the biggest worry in Lisbon is that there’s currently no replacement for Matic. The alternative at Jorge Jesus’ disposal is Fejsa, who joined from Olympiacos in the summer and who’s also Serbian. He’s not yet nurtured into the prime player to step into his teammate’s boots. Ideally, Matic would have departed in the summer, allowing Fejsa more time to adapt and the club more time to explore the market. However, the spotlight is now his and he must perform.
Who’d have thought that this would have happened to Matic? A player who cost Benfica nothing and worked hard to transform himself into one of Europe’s most wanted players. Following his departure, Jorge Jesus praised Matic’s talent and work ethic, labeling him as the “best defensive midfielder in the world.”
Although Benfica would’ve preferred to sell Matic for a higher fee by inviting other clubs to bid for his services or wait until the summer, they accepted the player’s wish to rejoin Chelsea.
During his final interview for Benfica TV, Matic praised and thanked his former manager: “I arrived here [to Portugal] very weak. I’m now physically much better and I’ve learned a lot under Jorge Jesus. I thank him greatly and if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be going to Chelsea and nor would there have been several other offers for me.”
Mourinho has signed the right player, a mature and complete Matic compared to the 21 year old that joined Chelsea a few years ago, who fans probably won’t even remember seeing play in a blue shirt. He’s hungry to win, learn and perform.
Nemanja has been a sterling soldier at Benfica under Jorge Jesus and the club have been admirable respecting his desire to return to The Bridge.
This piece was written by Dominic Vieira, Managing Editor of AFR. Comments below please.