A £75m striker scored a brace on his league debut at Old Trafford on Sunday, but much of the post-match talk on Sir Matt Busby Way was about a defensive midfielder. If that is an indication of how well Nemanja Matic played, it is also a reminder that Manchester United supporters have wanted a player of his kind for some years now.
Matic may be thought of a mere destroyer by some, but ask Jose Mourinho and he is “a player with special qualities”. In the 4-0 rout of West Ham United, the new signing won loose balls, cut out stray passes and showed his taste for a forceful tackle, but what he offered more than anything was control.
United’s midfield has lacked such a presence for a long time now but, under Sir Alex Ferguson, still won league titles without having a player who could be counted on to win a midfield battle. Darren Fletcher was always game and Michael Carrick exerted a different, subtler kind of control on his day, but neither imposed themselves on the action explicitly or consistently enough.
Manchester United vs West Ham player ratings
Manchester United: David de Gea – 6/10
Rarely called into action, but was equal to the few efforts West Ham unleashed at him.
Antonio Valencia – 7/10
Pinned back early on, but made waves down the right as the game opened up.
Phil Jones – 7/10
Often moved to put his body on the line. Could still be an asset if he can stay fit.
Eric Bailly – 6/10
His determination occasionally spilt over to the kind of carelessness that saw him booked.
Daley Blind – 8/10
Impressed on the left, getting forward at will to join the attack.
Nemanja Matic – 10/10
Absolutely superb in midfield. He protected his defence, won back possession at will and begun many of United’s best moves. Could he be the missing piece of Mourinho’s jigsaw?
Paul Pogba – 8/10
Strong without the ball and played some incredibly clever passes with it. Already an improvement on last season’s performances.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan – 8/10
A creative force. He set up two goals and was unlucky not make the scoresheet himself.
Juan Mata – 7/10
Some typically smart touches in and around the box but guilty of making a couple of wrong choices.
Marcus Rashford – 8/10
Troubled Obiang with his speed down the left and was only denied a stunning goal by the inside of the post.
Romelu Lukaku – 9/10
A dream debut double for the £75m man. His pace and power were too much for the West Ham defence.
Subs: Anthony Martial – 8/10
Reminded Mourinho of his potential with a goal and an assist in the last ten minutes.
West Ham: Joe Hart – 5/10
His return to Manchester proved to be a disappointment but he showed some quality in the early stages of the contest.
Pablo Zabaleta – 5/10
Another who started well, but began to look his age as the pace of United’s front line ran him ragged.
Winston Reid – 6/10
Troubled by Lukaku’s presence, he at least kept his individual discipline in an unruly defence.
Angelo Ogbonna – 5/10
Made some vital clearances in the first half, but wilted as West Ham lost their shape.
Arthur Masuaku – 4/10
Hung out to dry after his antics in the lead to United’s second, he was unconvincing at best.
Mark Noble – 5/10
The captain had neither the strength or awareness to compete with Pogba, Matic, Mata and Mkhitaryan i midfield.
Pedro Obiang – 5/10
Caught in possession in the build-up to the opener, he never recovered to make amends.
Edimilson Fernandes – 5/10
Fired West Ham’s best chance straight at De Gea and was replaced on the hour mark.
Andre Ayew – 5/10
Rarely in the game as Matic cut off the supply line to West Ham’s forwards.
Marko Arnautovic – 5/10
A quiet debut, he almost stole a goal with a looping header that clipped the crossbar.
Javier Hernández – 6/10
Eager to impress on his return to Old Trafford, he kept fighting to the end.
The central midfield role was seriously neglected for years at Old Trafford. To think that David Moyes arrived at Carrington with Anderson, Tom Cleverley, Nick Powell and a 40-year-old Ryan Giggs among his limited options in the position casts his failure at Old Trafford in a more sympathetic light, until you remember his answer was to sign Marouane Fellaini.
But arguably, for the first time since 2008, United’s options in the middle of the park befit the club’s stature once again. In Ander Herrera, they have a tenacious captain in waiting. Paul Pogba’s first year received mixed reviews but the talent is there for all to see. Now, with
Matic, there is finally a player capable of dominating the middle of the park and setting a foundation for the rest of the team.
This much was illustrated by one key moment on Sunday. For all the attention on Romelu Lukaku and his two goals, the source of the Belgian’s opener did not go unnoticed at Old Trafford. When West Ham’s Pedro Obiang briefly dithered on the ball in United’s half and before he could atone for his moment’s hesitation, Matic was on him, intercepting the pass Obiang tried to play and deflecting the ball into the path of the electric Marcus Rashford.
Rashford still had much to do to fashion a chance out of the move, and the teenager’s inch-perfect through pass for Lukaku was exquisite, but it was made possible by Matic’s speed in the tackle and vision of the field. From defence to attack with one knick of the ball; that is why Mourinho described him as the “perfect” player for his counter-attacking United.
It would be foolish to read too much into one game mind, especially against a West Ham side that lacked coherence in attack, and doubts remain over Matic after he was so poor while things fell down around Mourinho’s head at Chelsea two years ago. Even after his integral part in Antonio Conte’s title-winning side last season, there was a sense that his time at the club was up and a new beginning was needed. He has that now and, most United supporters would agree, he has started well.