Nemanja Matic

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What’s happened to Chelsea? Neville believes it’s the loss of Matic

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The defending Premier League champions have looked a shell of themselves at times in the 2017/18 season, both domestically and in Europe, and it’s quite evident what the problem is, according to one former player.

[ MORE: Chelsea pummeled by Roma, Man United wins in Tuesday’s UCL action ]

Ex-Manchester United midfielder Phil Neville told BBC 5 Live that he believes Antonio Conte‘s biggest issue this season is the loss of Nemanja Matic in the midfield.

The Serbian midfielder exited the club just prior to the PL’s kick off this campaign after heading to Old Trafford, leaving a noticeable gap in the Blues’ heart.

“What’s gone wrong for Chelsea? One word. Matic,” Neville said following Chelsea’s 3-0 defeat at Roma on Tuesday.

“It’s as simple as that. The minute they sold Nemanja Matic was a mistake.

“When you had Matic sat in front of you, alongside [N’Golo] Kante, there was protection. Whoever made that decision needs sacking. That is one of the poorest decisions I have ever seen in the Premier League.

“If you ask any of those Chelsea players who they would want back, they would say Matic. Chelsea replaced him with someone who is going to do the same job – [Tiemoue] Bakayoko is not that player, he is not a holding midfield player.

“They didn’t replace Matic. I wouldn’t have let him out of the building, I would have chained him to the training ground walls.”

Mourinho: “We deserved victory”; Matic expects title challenge

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If you doubt whether Manchester United’s players are all-in with Jose Mourinho’s cagey system, listen to Nemanja Matic‘s post-match verdict after a defensive but effective 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on Saturday.

“They had more of the ball in the first half but we had more chances than them,” Matic said. “They play great football but it’s the result that matters in the end. If we continue like this we can challenge for the title.”

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

He’s not wrong, and this effort was far better and less safe than United’s disappointing scoreless draw with Liverpool two weeks ago. While there will be discussion about the entertainment value of counter-attacking a Harry Kane-less Spurs at home, Mourinho’s men were ready to go with commitment to the system.

Mourinho knew what he faced in Spurs, though he must’ve been surprised to see Mauricio Pochettino not go relatively like-for-like by inserting Fernando Llorente to start in Kane’s stead.

“It was tactically difficult for both and it was well refereed. It was strong, aggressive,” Mourinho said. “We knew if we had one defensive mistake we could lose and that’s what happened to them. We tried and we deserved the victory.”

“Today, every ball looked like the last ball of their careers.”

It was a performance Mourinho can be proud of, yet his noting that United didn’t show as much desperation against Huddersfield shows how hard it can be for a club to flip a switch from that battling, hard fouling mentality to a free-flowing style.

At this point, though, most hardware-hungry United fans will be content to keep in the race for the Premier League title, style or not. Now how will they react if United falls when Chelsea meets their tactics halfway next week?

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Mourinho: Tactics involved targeting young Benfica backstop

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Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho knew that promising Benfica backstop Mile Svilar would be facing some big nerves.

The 18-year-old was making his UEFA Champions League debut, and Mourinho instructed his Red Devils to challenge the backstop at every turn.

[ RECAP: Benfica 0-1 Man Utd ]

That paid off when Svilar carried Marcus Rashford‘s free kick into the goal, the lone marker of a 1-0 loss that keeps United atop Group A and Benfica three points behind second- and third place.

“I knew how good the goalkeeper was, I told the players that. We had a little bit of a strategy, especially on set-pieces to make him uncomfortable. We put men around him on corners so he cannot come out. He risks a lot, but only top keepers do that. He was unlucky for the goal,” Mourinho said.

Svilar looked dejected after the game, apologizing to fans at the Estadio da Luz and getting consolation from a fellow Belgian in Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku.

Nemanja Matic laid out United’s strategy a bit more, from the BBC:

“The manager said to us to try and shoot and get some crosses towards their goalkeeper because he is young and playing in his first game. This is football and I know he is a great goalkeeper and I wish him well for the future.

“We had control, some difficulties in the first 30 minuets but then we controlled the pitch. We used our experience. We could not find the second goal but did not make any mistakes at the back.”

Rashford limped out of the game, and Mourinho says he initially thought it was cramps. Instead, it’s a problem with his left knee. Simon Peach of the Press Association quotes Mourinho as hoping the injury is not bad.

United completed more than 500 passes, doubling Benfica’s production. Some have been critical of Mourinho’s penchant to play it safe, and he winked at them after the match in calling his tactics “a crime.”

“We were in control, David De Gea did not have one save to make. I never felt we could concede a goal and were solid defensively. Sometime I feel being good defensively is a crime, but that is a way of getting results.”

WATCH: Valencia smashes volley to give Man Utd lead

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Jordan Pickford didn’t have much of a chance on Antonio Valencia‘s wonderful opener.

Manchester United took a 1-0 lead on visiting Everton on Sunday thanks to a fourth-minute marker from the Ecuadorian national team captain.

[ STREAM: Manchester United vs. Everton ]

A quick free kick was played short to Nemanja Matic, who hit a ball across the arc of the 18 for Valencia.

The 32-year-old then smashed a near side volley past a flying Pickford, the keeper’s dive making the goal look even better.

Jose Mourinho: Neymar transfer “changed everything”

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Jose Mourinho is patting himself on the back for getting his transfer business done early in the window.

Manchester United spent a reported $190 million on signing Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelof, but Mourinho believes that the club would have had to spend even more had the transfers come after Neymar’s $260 million move.

[ MORE: Full lineups, PL stats, box scores ]

“I think we were very clever,” Mourinho told the Times UK. “We thought that something could happen that could change the market forever. Normally the last part of the market is less expensive, but this season, after Neymar [left Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain in a world-record £199 million deal], everything changed — and changed for the worse in terms of prices. I think Lukaku on August 31 would have been £150 million. Matic would have been £60 million or £70 million. Neymar changed everything. If the biggest transfer in history had still been Pogba, I think Philippe Coutinho [the Liverpool playmaker] would now be in Barcelona at £101 million.

“People look to the £200 million figure now. Now the players of £20 million became £40 million, the players of £40 million became £60 million and everything changed. Lukaku and Matic, now, would have cost us £200 million in total. But because we did it in the first part of the summer, it was much less. I think we did well in financial terms and well in preparation terms, getting them before the season started. That is not crucial but it is important.”

Mourinho has a right to be happy about his work in the transfer market. He was able to bring in three players to improve the team’s spine and Man United is flying high with three wins out of three to lead the Premier League.

Now it remains to be seen whether Man United can keep up the strong performances throughout the rest of the season, giving Mourinho his fourth Premier League title.