Despite red card, Matic still Chelsea player of the season

Mourinho could be forced to reshuffle his entire team to compensate for the loss of Matic

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It was a rare moment of foolishness in an otherwise unblemished season. Ashley Barnes’s tackle on Nemanja Matic may have been reckless and dangerous, but the Serbian midfielder could hardly contest the red card he was shown for pushing the Burnley player to the ground in retaliation.

Chelsea will now be without Matic for Sunday’s Capital One Cup final against Spurs, as well as for important Premier League matches with London rival West Ham and Champions League-chasing Southampton.

However, despite the red card, he is still Chelsea’s player of the season thus far. Cesc Fabregas will be a strong contender for individual awards come the end of the season, and indeed few in English football can match his artistry and innate creativity. He is the spark from which Chelsea have caught light this season.

Diego Costa has made quite the impact on the Premier League since making the move from La Liga too, but not even these two - for all their attacking contribution - can claim as big a role in the Blues’ success this season as Matic.

It goes some way to explaining why manager Jose Mourinho was so irate with Martin Atkinson’s decision to send off Matic against Burnley. “It could be the end of Matic’s career,” Mourinho said. “A criminal tackle. Matic is a very lucky guy.”

In his absence Matic’s importance to Chelsea will be highlighted. Mourinho’s side have lost just three games in all competitions this season, and Matic was absent for two of them.

He was not involved when the Blues lost their unbeaten Premier League record at Newcastle in December, and also sat out the humiliating FA Cup collapse to Bradford City earlier this month. With Matic in the team, Chelsea concede an average of 0.8 goals per game, averaging two goals per game without him. That is no coincidence.

Manchester City’s Yaya Toure is perhaps the only other Premier League player that possesses the sheer physical presence that Matic has. With Chelsea’s back four in something of a transition, the protection he provides is integral to holding the entire team together.

One should not reduce the Serbian to merely his physical attributes as the lynchpin of the team’s fluid and effortlessly dynamic midfield. The 26-year-old is just as important to Chelsea’s passing rhythm as anyone else. For statistical confirmation, only Fabregas has played more passes than him this season.

Even Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets - for so long the archetypal defensive midfielder - falls short of Matic in technical terms and passing ability. Look at the pass Matic played for Eden Hazard to square for Loic Remy in the 1-1 draw with title rivals Manchester City last month. Could any other defensive midfielder in Europe do that?

The list of Matic’s statistical accolades is lengthy. He is the Premier League’s most prolific tackler, making more than any other player in the division this season. He is also a threat from set pieces too, winning more aerial challenges than any of his teammates, barring John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic. And Matic - along with Fabregas - has covered more ground (over 250 km) than anyone else in the Premier League

Matic benefitted from a six-month bedding-in period at Stamford Bridge following his return to the King’s Road club from Benfica last January. With every game, the Serbian has grown in stature and significance to Chelsea.

His form this season underlines that Chelsea should be commended for taking back Matic, essentially admitting their mistake in letting him leave Stamford Bridge in the first place three years before. Regardless of whether re-signing him would cross the club’s transfer policy, Mourinho rightly identified the Serbian as the player he needed to berth his inherently attacking side.

How will Chelsea cope without him over the next three games, as Matic serves his suspension for lashing out at Barnes? Not very well, if precedent is anything to go by. Mourinho could be forced to reshuffle his entire team to compensate for the loss.

“Matic is a player who gives balance to a team,” said Rui Costa, Benfica sporting director and former Portuguese international, following Matic’s move to Chelsea last year. The flip side of that is that without him, Mourinho’s side seems somewhat lopsided. It could be only now, in his absence, that Matic’s value is truly recognized.

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