Chelsea may live to regret selling Nemanja Matic to Manchester United


Antonio Conte has a lot on his mind at the moment, at least going on the basis of his demeanour at Sunday’s Community Shield. Indeed, the Italian, normally one of the most immaculately turned out managers in the Premier League, showed up at the national stadium in a tracksuit, dishevelled. His infectious energy quelled, Conte appears worn by a summer of frustrations. The loss of Nemanja Matic probably isn’t weighing on his mind as one such frustration, though.

Indeed, Matic is a rather unremarkable player. Not in terms of his talent or ability, but in his role. It was easy to miss the Serbian in Chelsea’s title-winning team, but he was there. What’s more, he was important. Without Matic, Eden Hazard wouldn’t have had the same platform to drive forward at every opportunity, Cesc Fabregas wouldn’t have had the creative freedom he requires to perform at his best and the Blues would have been denied a stunner of a strike against Spurs in the FA Cup semi-final.

Yet Matic’s departure from Stamford Bridge caused little fuss. Even in a difficult summer for the Blues, in which they have been thwarted in almost every attempt to sign a top target, the Serbian was deemed a player they could do without. A player they could do better than. All the better that they collected £40 million from Manchester United for him.

That attitude might prove to be misplaced, though. Matic might not have offered Chelsea goals, assists and all the other stuff that make a footballer standout, but he brought structure. In Conte’s fluid three at the back system, the Serbian was so often the linchpin holding everything together. Without him, the ploy wouldn’t have worked.


Conte, the great tactician that he is, surely recognises this. His signing of Tiemoue Bakayoko from Monaco suggests that he, the 22-year-old French international, will play in the Matic role this season, forming a partnership with N’Golo Kante. It has the potential to give Chelsea an even stronger platform in the centre of the pitch.

But new signings, particularly ones of such a young age, come with risk. Bakayoko might well be one of the brightest young midfielders in Europe, excelling for Monaco in the Champions League last season, but how quickly will he adapt to his new surroundings at Stamford Bridge? Will he slot as seamlessly into Conte’s side as Matic did?

Such questions were aired after Chelsea’s display in the Community Shield defeat to Arsenal on Sunday. While it remains early in the season, with the first Premier League fixture still to be played, the Blues at this stage look very much a work-in-progress. It took the Italian a few weeks to settle on a system last season, and it could be a similar case this season too.

Chelsea might come to miss Matic more than they realise. There were no eulogies to the Serbian upon his exit from Stamford Bridge, but perhaps there should have been. The Blues have won the Premier League title in two of the last three seasons, with Matic a central figure both times. So why wasn’t he afforded the credit he deserves?

That is the sacrifice players like Matic pay. They don’t catch the eye very often, they don’t sell many shirts, but they remain critical to the infrastructure of a football team. Jose Mourinho recognises that, returning to sign a player who served him so well as Chelsea boss, the hope being that he will fulfil a similar role and significance at Man Utd.

It’s not often that the defending Premier League champions enter a season with so many questions held against them. From front to back, Conte has been forced to rethink his team, going some way to explain his manner at Wembley on Sunday. Matic’s exit is just another reason for the Italian to have reason for concern.