Nemanja Matić – Player Profile

Serbian central midfielder Nemanja Matić signed for Olympique Lyonnais from Ligue 1 rivals Rennes for €2.6 million in the January 2024 transfer window. The thirty-five year old becomes the oldest player in the current Lyon squad and has joined on a two-and-a-half-year contract, taking him through to summer 2026.

Matić had only spent half a season at Rennes, having joined them from AS Roma in the summer of 2023. However, he was reportedly unhappy with the schooling arrangements for his children in the Breton capital and consequently pushed for an early departure. He was in the stands at the Groupama Stadium to witness Lyon’s 2-3 defeat to Rennes in late January and completed his transfer in the immediate aftermath of the match.

Saving Lyon’s Season

Matić was thrown straight into the Lyon starting XI the following weekend for the visit of Marseille, and his calming presence at the heart of the midfield prompted an instant upturn in Lyon’s fortunes. They secured a 1-0 victory over their bitter rivals in a hard-fought contest, which proved to be the start of a winning run that lifted the club out of the relegation zone and into mid-table.

A tactically and positionally disciplined defensive midfielder providing a protective screen in front of the defence was exactly what Lyon had been missing in the first half of the season. Matić may no longer possess the speed and energy of his peak years in the Premier League, but he has the experience and awareness to compensate.

A recurrent problem had been the bombardment of shots that Lyon were facing from around the edge of the box due to opposition players being given too much time and space in dangerous areas. Matić is adept at sniffing out danger and closing players down before they get into a shooting position. Furthermore, his composure and assuredness in possession and his expansive range of passing have helped Lyon transition more effectively from defence to attack.

Growing up in Serbia

Nemanja Matić was born in Šabac, a town of some 50,000 inhabitants in the west of Serbia. It sits on the right bank of the River Sava, which meanders its way downstream towards its confluence with the Danube in Belgrade, around 50 km to the east. Back in 1988, that was at the heart of the former Yugoslavia. However, as the country disintegrated in the bloody conflict of the early 1990’s, Šabac founds itself just 25 km from the border with Bosnia.

Growing up in the nearby village of Vrelo, Matić lived in the shadow of that war for almost a decade from the age of two onwards. Indeed, Vrelo was a target of the NATO bombing campaign of Spring 1999 as Matić approached his eleventh birthday, which was the motive behind his decision not to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day later in life.

Initially coached by his own father in the youth sections of FK Vrelo, the young Matić was on the books of various Serbian clubs before breaking through to make his senior debut at FK Kolubara during the 2006-07 season. Based in the southern suburbs of the capital, FK Kolubara were competing in the Serbian League Belgrade division, which is one of four divisions at the third tier of the Serbian football pyramid.

An early move abroad

However, after just a few months in the first team, Matić was scouted by Slovak club Košice and joined them permanently in January 2007. He quickly became an integral part of their line-up and spent two and a half seasons learning his trade in the Slovak Superliga, picking up a Slovak Cup winners medal in 2009. In 2008, he had been joined at the club by his younger brother, Uroš Matić, also a midfielder, but the two weren’t together for long as Nemanja was snapped up by Chelsea for €1.75m in August 2009.

The twenty-one year old Matić only made three appearances during that debut season for Chelsea as they won a domestic double under Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti. Therefore, he didn’t qualify for a Premier League winner’s medal, but he did pick up an FA Cup medal, having played 25 minutes as a substitute in the 5-0 win over Watford in the Third Round and being on the bench for the 1-0 win over Portsmouth in the final at Wembley.

His Chelsea debut had come in a 4-0 home win against Wolves in November 2009, where he replaced former Lyon star Florent Malouda in the 69th minute. His only other outing came in the final league game of the campaign, an 8-0 crushing of Wigan Athletic at Stamford Bridge in which he replaced Michael Ballack in the 70th minute.

Not yet ready for Chelsea

The following season, Nemanja Matić was loaned out to Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch Eredivisie, where he soon established himself as a first team regular. He made twenty-nine appearances and scored two goals as he helped them avoid relegation by the skin of their teeth. By then, Chelsea had decided that Matić was surplus to requirements and they moved him on to Benfica in the summer of 2011 for a fee of €5 million.

It would cost José Mourinho five times that amount to re-sign him for Chelsea in January 2014 after two and a half years in the Portuguese capital. During that spell, Matić actually faced Chelsea in the UEFA Europa League final at the Amsterdam Arena in 2013. Unfortunately for him, Benfica were beaten 2-1 by his former, and future, employers but Matić had the consolation of being named as the Portuguese Primeira Liga Player of the Season at the end of that campaign.

Bossing it in the Premier League

The three and a half years that Matić spent back at Stamford Bridge between 2014 and 2017 were perhaps the best of his career. He picked up two Premier League titles and was in the PFA Team of the Year for 2014-15. Having been virtually ever-present in midfield for the Blues since his return to the club, it was somewhat surprising that they allowed him to leave in the summer of 2017 to link up with Mourinho again at rivals Manchester United for a fee of around £40 million.

Matić quickly established himself as a key component of the United midfield and the five years that he spent at Old Trafford is the longest period that he settled at one club during his itinerant career. He slotted into the team as a long-term replacement for Michael Carrick at a time when the Red Devils were struggling to forge a new identity in the post Fergie years. Unfortunately, despite some consistently solid individual performances, Matić was unable to help the team collect any silverware.

It was a case of so near yet so far on several occasions. He once again lost out to Chelsea in a final when United were beaten 1-0 by the Blues in the 2018 FA Cup decider and it was double disappointment that season as they also finished runners up in the Premier League. A similar thing happened in 2020-21 when, now under the stewardship of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, they again came second in the league and lost the UEFA Europa League final on penalties to Villareal.

Following in José’s footsteps

Matić’s final season at Old Trafford was underwhelming on all fronts as they limped to sixth place under interim boss Ralf Rangnick and he was allowed to depart on a free transfer in the summer. He was signed for a third time by José Mourinho, who was by now in charge of AS Roma.

Matić spent a single season in Italy, where he made fifty appearances across all competitions, helping Roma to a sixth place finish in Serie A and the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia. It was, however, Roma’s European campaign that provided the most excitement as the club made it all the way to the UEFA Europa League final in Budapest, where they faced Sevilla. It represented a chance for Matić to make it third time lucky in that competition after his two previous final defeats, However, he was forced to settle for a runners-up medal once again following more penalty shoot-out heartbreak.

Nemanja Matić’s international career with Serbia spanned eleven years from 2008 to 2019, during which time he accumulated 48 caps and scored two goals. The highlight was the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where he played in all three matches as Serbia finished third in Group E behind Brazil and Switzerland.