Nemanja Matic offers Roy Keane qualities to new-look Man United
There was a passage of play in the build-up to Romelu Lukaku's opening goal during Manchester United's 4-0 victory over West Ham on Sunday which emphasised just why midfielder Nemanja Matic can make such a difference to Jose Mourinho's team this season.
Matic, a £40 million summer arrival from Chelsea, began the move with an interception just inside the United half before laying the ball off for Marcus Rashford, who in turn released Lukaku to score his first Premier League since for the club since his £75m move from Everton.
As Lukaku struck the shot which went in off Joe Hart's right-hand post, Matic was over-lapping on the left, creating space for the Belgian to shoot at goal.
In the space of 10 seconds, Matic had shown how he can be a transformative player in this United team, offering Mourinho a presence in midfield that no United manager has had for over a decade -- arguably since Roy Keane was at his pomp more than 15 years ago.
Matic is not the new Roy Keane, but he brings qualities to the Old Trafford midfield that no player has been able to provide since the Irishman departed the scene in 2005.
A defensive midfielder, Matic operates higher up the pitch than Michael Carrick and he is more athletic and dynamic than Marouane Fellaini. Ander Herrera lacks Matic's power and game-management skills, while Paul Pogba has yet to develop the tactical awareness to be able to dictate the game from a deeper-lying midfield role.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Owen Hargreaves provided the tenacity and destructive qualities possessed by Matic, Darren Fletcher was able to offer greater goal-threat going forward and Paul Scholes had the ability to dominate a game from the central third, but Matic's experience and presence ensure that United now have the midfield general that has been absent from their side for too long.
Having scored twice in a resounding opening-day victory, Lukaku claimed the headlines from United's win, but Matic's performance was the most eye-catching individual display because of what it signposts for Mourinho's team.
Last season, United lacked energy and power in the deeper midfield area.
Carrick, now 36, made 38 appearances in 2016-17, but while the former England international was often a crucial steadying influence, his age now denies him the ability to dominate a game and dictate the tempo against a top opponent.
Mourinho has admitted he would love to wind back the clock and have a 26-year-old Carrick in his team, but that cannot happen, so recruiting a replacement became a priority.
United targeted Monaco's Tiemoue Bakayoko, even attempting to negotiate a deal in January for the France international, but from an early stage, it was always clear that Chelsea would sign the player.
Eric Dier was another on Mourinho's list. The Tottenham midfielder, a boyhood United supporter, was keen to move to Old Trafford, but Spurs simply would not listen to offers.
Dier, 23, remains a Mourinho target going forward and he could yet move to United next summer, but Matic is the signing that offers an instant upgrade, a "here and now" improvement, and he is a player who Mourinho knows and trusts to make a difference.
Against West Ham, aside from his contribution for Lukaku's opening goal, Matic also gave United more dynamism by dragging the midfield base at least 10 yards higher up the pitch than last season.
In doing so, Matic gave the back four greater space and protection by keeping the opposition further away, but he also gave the team a more offensive starting position when going forward, as seen by the interception close to the centre circle which led to Lukaku's goal.
Last season, United were too often pressed back into their own defensive third, but that is less likely to happen with Matic in the team. And with his teammates now more confident in the ability of their defensive midfielders to keep the back door shut, the likes of Pogba will be able to break forward more and create havoc in the final third.
Matic's arrival should be good news for Pogba, whose best performances for France and former club Juventus have come when backed up by top-class, reliable defensive midfielders able to provide cover when he gallops forward.
That United have been able to sign Matic at all is bewildering, considering his importance to Chelsea during their last two Premier League title-winning campaigns. Indeed, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has described Matic's departure as a "great loss," with the Italian clearly unhappy with the sale of one of his squad's most consistent performers.
Watching Matic dominate for United, just 24 hours after Chelsea had been beaten 3-2 at home by Burnley, will have rubbed salt into the wound for Conte, but his loss is Mourinho's gain.
Every aspiring Premier League champion needs a dominant midfielder and, by signing Matic, United now have one again.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_