Nemanja Matic is an unapologetically short-term signing for Manchester United. Announced a day before his 29th birthday, it was reflected in the three-year contract he signed — which has the option of an additional year should things go well — as much as anything else.
The plan is that the Serbia international has already helped United win the Premier League title long before any talk of triggering the extension begins.
The message throughout the summer from United’s players is that the title is the target next season. Two trophies — three if you count the Community Shield — was a decent haul in Jose Mourinho’s first season. But there is no getting away from the fact that United finished sixth in the league, 24 points behind champions Chelsea. It is a lot of ground to make up.
It is no coincidence Mourinho’s two biggest summer signings — Matic and Romelu Lukaku — are proven performers in the Premier League. United also chased Real Madrid striker Alvaro Morata to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic, before he moved to Chelsea, but one of the big positives about Lukaku was that he has consistently scored goals in the Premier League for Everton over the past five seasons. Meanwhile Matic has won the title twice, once under Mourinho at Chelsea.
The United manager will say, when he is inevitably asked, that he wants to win every trophy next season. But the title is the priority.
Sir Alex Ferguson left United in 2013 regretting that he did not win the Champions League more often, but he would often call the league his “bread and butter.” It was the most important competition for him every season.
Matic is not the long-term replacement for Michael Carrick some United fans were hoping for this summer. Mourinho has already suggested this season will be Carrick’s last at Old Trafford — that is no surprise with the new club captain recently turning 36 — but finding a successor is for another time.
To delay such a decision just goes to show the pressure Mourinho is under to deliver a 21st title. Or, at the very least, mount a serious challenge.
Earlier in the summer, United took the unusual step of ruling out a move for Monaco midfielder Fabinho. The Brazilian would have filled a gap and his signing, had it happened, would have caused a great deal more excitement than the Matic announcement. But, crucially, he has never played in England.
Tottenham’s Eric Dier, who Mourinho was also interested in, is the same age as Fabinho at 23. But even though Fabinho was a key man for Monaco in their run to the Champions League semifinals last season, Dier was seen as a better fit. It was his Premier League experience that tipped the balance.
The England midfielder may still be a replacement for Carrick, or for Matic, further down the line but Matic fills an immediate need for Mourinho, and if his arrival helps get more out of Paul Pogba then all the better.
At £35 million with £5m in add-ons, United feel they have got a good deal. The extras have been described as “achievable” and United expect to eventually pay the full £40m. But in a world where Chelsea got £20m from Bournemouth for Nathan Ake after just seven Premier League appearances, there is a feeling within Old Trafford that it represents a fair price.
Sources have told skysports that Ed Woodward has been surprised by some of the valuations for players, even in a market he knew would be vastly inflated.
Many of United’s decision-makers are in agreement with Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who said this week that more players are set to run down their contracts to move clubs because asking prices are so high.
The world-record of £89.3m could yet double in the space of 12 months if Kylian Mbappe leaves Monaco for Real Madrid in a £161m deal, or Neymar quits Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain for a fee of £197m.
Ferguson paid a £24m fee to sign 29-year-old Robin van Persie from Arsenal in 2012 with the express hope he would help wrestle the title back from Manchester City. It worked, but three years later the Dutchman was gone. He was a short-term signing that paid off, and the hope is that Matic can do the same for Mourinho — even if his contribution is likely to be far less dramatic.
Some new signings are designed to sell shirts, others are bought with one eye on the future. Matic is here is help United win now. Specifically the Premier League title.