But, like Ole Gunnar Solskjær, the Serbian enforcer has enjoyed something of an Old Trafford renaissance in recent weeks and has extended his Old Trafford stay.
It wasn’t that long ago the 31-year-old appeared destined for the exit. Out of contract at the end of the season, the former Chelsea midfielder had made just two Premier League starts before Christmas.
At that stage, it would have been difficult to credit Solskjær with much since lucking out to land the job on a full-time basis. But his admirable devotion to the club’s young players was one thing. That meant freezing Matić out and persisting with the frustrating but more mobile Scott McTominay, Fred and Andreas Pereira.
Matić has started nine of United’s last ten Premier League games. That is some turnaround for a player who it had been expected to leave in January. Antonio Conte, his former boss at Chelsea and now head coach at Internazionale, had long been linked. So had city rivals Milan.
But Matić has enjoyed a significant upturn in his performance levels in the last couple of months, prompting United to agree terms on that new deal. “We have agreed with him so he will stay, 100 per cent,” Solskjaer said prior to the weekend’s win in the Manchester derby.
A few short months ago the midfielder was seen as a relic of the José Mourinho era, now he is the old head in a young team gradually restoring pride in the name of Manchester United.
Since his return to the side for the 2-0 win at Burnley on December 28, United have lost just three times in the Premier League and conceded eight goals in 14 games across all competitions. That is a welcome return to some kind of defensive solidity for a side who, earlier in the campaign, were about as resolute as tissue paper.
That isn’t solely down to Matić. The arrival of Bruno Fernandes, as detailed here, has galvanised the Red Devils in a very short space of time. The former Sporting star has finally filled the vacant No.10 role, allowing Fred to drop back and play alongside Matić at the base of midfield in Solskjær’s 3-4-1-2 system.
The Brazilian was tarred as an expensive flop under Mourinho and it was hard to see why Manchester City had been drawn into a bidding war for the Brazilian.
This season, though, the former Shakhtar Donetsk star has been transformed, though that had been to Matić’s detriment. The Serb simply doesn’t have the legs or mobility to cover the ground for two players and with Fred trying to operate further ahead of him, Matić was left exposed.
Whisper it quietly, but McTominay’s injury hardly helped on this front either. At one stage the Scot looked like the pawn in another of Mourinho’s overly elaborate games of chicken with the United board. But he has gradually become an important part of Solskjær’s new-looked side and his injury earlier this year was a significant blow for the embattled Norwegian.
With his supporting cast back and greater structure around Matić has been transformed. He has gone from a plodding, almost statuesque, figure of fun who was too slow and not positive enough in possession to the perfect screen for United’s back four. We’re not talking about the panacea to all Solskjær’s midfield woes here, but we are talking about a very handy option to have.
At his best for Chelsea, Matić was the stand-out holding midfielder in the Premier League. A powerful, surprisingly mobile midfield destroyer who looked for trouble and snuffed it out. It feels like a long time since we’ve seen that incarnation of Matić. But that is changing.
Unsurprisingly given the shift in United’s midfield, Matić has seen the number of tackles he makes (per 90) fall from 3.38 to 2.02 since December 28 while the number of tackles he wins has dropped from 1.69 to 1.01.
He is, however, making more interceptions – up from 0.56 to 1.46 and that is indicative of the fact he is now freed to step up and nip opposition attacks in the bud. Matić’s passing has been more positive and his growing influence on games has been impossible to ignore.
Fernandes has been getting all the plaudits since his £67.6million switch from Sporting and rightly so. But Matić is the power behind the throne.