Arsenal showed good application for much of Sunday’s game at Stamford Bridge, defending in numbers and wary of the counter attack. But Chelsea’s opener still highlighted the problem. Eden Hazard glided away from Santi Cazorla and Laurent Koscielny was left exposed. It proved decisive.
It’s also the sort of situation Nemanja Matic makes it his business to snuff out. No wonder the Chelsea boss was evoking a beastly comparison in midweek. “I think Matic was a monster,” said Jose Mourinho when describing the Serbian’s performance in Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Sporting.
On his return to Lisbon, the former Benfica man was indeed a considerable presence, not only scoring the only goal of the game with his first-half header but also making more tackles and blocks than anyone on the pitch and winning possession 10 times – more than any outfield player.
Against the Gunners, it was the turn of others to take the spotlight. Hazard provided the breakthrough with his penetrative running before Cesc Fabregas came to prominence after the interval, lofting the pass over the top for Diego Costa to finish the chance – and the game – in style.
But there was always Matic. Whether it was bullying Jack Wilshere off the ball or tracking a Danny Welbeck run down the channel, the holding midfielder was there to provide security and give others the platform to make things happen. Graeme Souness summed it up well before kick-off.
“Matic’s thoughts are not about getting on the ball and doing something really cute and clever on the ball by scoring a goal or finding a pass for a goal. Matic is not thinking like that. He is going on the pitch thinking that he’s going to do a job for the team and fill all the danger areas when the opposition has the ball. He gives the freedom to the other midfield players to do the damage.”
With the game in the balance in the first half, Matic was at his athletic best. He covered 6.09 kilometres in the opening 45 minutes – more than any other Chelsea player – and nobody on either team gained possession of the ball more times. In a congested midfield, he remained comfortable.
When Arsenal pushed for an equaliser in the second half, Mourinho had Chelsea operating in full counter-puncher mode and Matic was afforded the luxury of John Obi Mikel alongside him for company. The Gunners failed to muster a shot on target. “We were in control,” said Mourinho.
Matic’s quiet determination was evident. Even with the score at 2-0 he was there to shut out Welbeck down the left with a simple back pass to Petr Cech. He then quickly pressed Tomas Rosicky in order to induce an error. There was a high five after an Oscar clearance and applause for John Terry in the final minute when the skipper headed clear. Matic sees the job through.
It’s that fusion of quality and resilience that might just set Chelsea apart from their rivals this year. The statistics are certainly impressive. Matic ranks among the top six midfielders in the Premier League for tackles, clearances, headed clearances and recoveries.
He’s in the top dozen for aerial duels won too. Tellingly, neither Sunday’s opponents Arsenal nor main title rivals Manchester City have anyone who ranks above him in any of those disciplines.
It was Hazard then Fabregas and Costa who made the difference on the day. But over the course of a long season, nobody should underestimate the difference Nemanja Matic can make for this Chelsea team. There are signs that Mourinho’s monster could prove critical in the title race.