LONDON - It was one of the strangest moments of the oddest period in Chelsea’s modern history. Facing Southampton at home on 3 October 2015, and having conceded a 1-1 equaliser just before the break, Jose Mourinho threw on Nemanja Matic for Ramires.
After just 27 minutes of the second half, with Chelsea now down 3-1, Matic having been shredded by Sadio Mane, Mourinho hauled him back off for Loic Remy. The crowd booed, Matic and Mourinho ignored one another, and Chelsea slumped to their fourth defeat of the season in just their eighth game.
Afterwards Mourinho insisted that he had not set out to “humiliate” Matic. “I do not do that to anyone in football and in life” he said, to some raised eyebrows. But he was happy to point out just how badly Matic was playing. “Some of [the players] are in a difficult moment, Matic is one of them,” he said.
“He is not playing well. He is not the sharpest. He is not making good decisions with the ball.”
It was one of the harshest public condemnations of a player heard during the five-month meltdown that was Chelsea’s title defence in 2015-16. And yet this week, less than two years on, Mourinho is about to spend £35million on the man who he scorned in that remarkable half-season.
In many ways, the story of Matic was the story of that whole Chelsea team. Perhaps only Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas were more emblematic of the destroyed confidence of the team who set out to defend their title and finished up 10.
Matic had been bought back to Chelsea in January 2014 and provided power, range and stability in the middle of midfield. When Cesc Fabregas arrived six months later the pair were the midfield foundation of the 2014-15 title.
But by the summer of 2015 Mourinho decided to push his team on to the next level, to criticise them, in public and private, to spark the improvement to take the team on.
Matic was told that his touch and passing were not good enough and when the season began he found himself in and out of the team. Matic was dropped for games against Maccabi Tel Aviv, Porto, Aston Villa and Liverpool as Mourinho tried and failed to find a functioning team.
Before that game in Porto on 30 September, Mourinho made clear what his issue was with the senior players who were failing to defend their title. “When you have individuals with an unstable attitude in terms of motivation, desire and commitment, you will pay,” he said.
“There are two sorts of champions: champions who win something, and serial champions. I am a serial champion in my approach and attitude. This is the problem we have at this moment, we have champions but not serial champions.”
Mourinho said that John Terry and Jon Obi Mikel were off the hook, so the target of his criticism was clear. He meant the players who had arrived at Stamford Bridge over the previous few years but who had not shown the application of his team who defended the 2004-05 title in 2005-06.
Oscar, Matic, Hazard, Willian and Fabregas were the players Mourinho was criticising. Matic and Hazard were dropped the next day. Chelsea still lost 2-1.
Matic’s season did not get much better from there. The painful Southampton experience was four days later, he was sent off at West Ham three weeks after that. He was in and out of the team and his confidence never recovered.
The whole story is a failed example of Mourinho’s ‘confrontational leadership’, his attempt to hammer his players in the hope it will get them to play better. The evidence of that explosive half-season is that with modern, younger players it does not always work that way.
That is why it is not even worth putting too much emphasis on the detail of Mourinho’s criticisms of Matic. He is still a good player, better than he was showing then, and now has two Premier League medals to show for it.
His touch and passing are fine for the role he plays and at Manchester United he will give them more stability in midfield alongside Ander Herrera and behind Paul Pogba. He will be an important piece in their jigsaw.
The point is that when everything was going wrong for Chelsea, and Mourinho was reaching for any gesture in sight, in the hope of sparking a reaction, it was Matic, more than anyone else, who he went for.
If Mourinho now thinks, less than two years on, that he is worth spending big money on then that shows that he feels the big Serb can take it.
Matic, too, is keen on this move and wants to work again with the manager whose support he clearly lost before. Which shows that in the world of Jose Mourinho, not every barb is meant to last.