The common refrain about Jose Mourinho teams is that the good ones always have a strong spine.
At Porto, he had a spine that comprised, mainly, of Vítor Baía, Ricardo Carvalho, Costinha, Deco, and Hélder Postiga. During his first go-around at Chelsea, he added Carvalho and Didier Drogba to the already-strong Petr Cech-John Terry-Claude Makélélé-Frank Lampard based spine he got from Claudio Raineri. At Inter, he inherited a fantastic defensive spine and added playmaker Wesley Sneijder and hitman Samuel Eto’o to provide the goals. His best Real Madrid team was held up by a spine that consisted of eventual nemeses Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos, as well as Pepe, Sami Khedira, Xabi Alonso, Mesut Özil and Karim Benzema. The spine for his second Chelsea go-around (Thibaut Courtois, Terry, Gary Cahill, Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa) was so strong that it helped power the team to another title win following Mourinho’s dismissal.
Now, with Matic’s defection to Old Trafford, Mourinho finally has the kind of spine that can rival those of his best teams.
On Sunday, word leaked out that the long-running transfer saga had finally come to a close as Matic was pictured at Carrington wearing a United training top. After United’s 3-0 win over Valerenga in Oslo, Mourinho seemed to confirm the deal, saying that Matic wanted to join “very, very much” and that when a player wants a move that badly, it usually happens (although Alvaro Morata might beg to differ).
On Monday, it became official as Matic formally joined Manchester United in a £35 million deal (according to ESPN, the fee could rise to £40 million). “Nemanja is a Manchester United player and a Jose Mourinho player,” Mourinho said after the deal was completed. “He represents everything we want in a footballer; loyalty, consistency, ambition, team player.”
Matic isn’t the sexiest name out there. It’s possible he wasn’t even his former manager’s first choice (Eric Dier seemed to be Mou’s primary target, while the fans seemed to prefer Fabinho). And his price tag seems ludicrously and artificially high (albeit consistent with the over-inflated Premier League transfer market).
Nevertheless, Matic has been one of the best defensive midfielders in England over the last few years and has been an integral part of two title-winning teams. Adding Matic to a spine that already features David de Gea, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones/Victor Lindelöf and Romelu Lukaku should improve the team immensely, as well as immediately. United showed signs of having a dominant defense last year, but Mourinho typically used two holding midfielders to protect the back-four instead of just one. Matic’s arrival means Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera can play further up the pitch and focus on improving United’s impotent attack.
Matic is also yet another sign that Mourinho is remaking the team in his image. The Special One’s best teams are hard to break down defensively, are quick down the flanks, are lethal on the counterattack and are physically dominant. Perhaps that’s why Mourinho, during his postmatch comments on Sunday, felt the need to drop this kernel about a player that many felt would never share a dressing room with Matic. “It is easier for Galatasaray to get me than Marouane,” Mourinho said about Fellaini, who reportedly signed a deal with the Turkish giants over the weekend. “Marouane forget it. He’s very important for me.”
Fellaini, like Matic, isn’t a guy who’s going to sell a lot of shirts. But he’s big and strong and wins most of his aerial duels. Both Matic and Fellaini are more than capable of doing their jobs well and are the types of physically dominating players that Mourinho covets. As far as spine players go, Mourinho could do a lot worse.
Now it’s on to the next long-running transfer rumor. If Ivan Perisic really joins the team, then Mourinho will finally have the kind of speedy winger who can stretch out defenses and deliver pinpoint crosses into the box that his teams have always thrived with. Slowly but surely, Mourinho is remaking the team into his own image.