CloseU.S. soccer correspondentJeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC.
Inter Miami completed the signing of France international Blaise Matuidi last week, easily the biggest splash of Major League Soccer’s summer transfer window so far. But what kind of player is Miami getting, and how will he fit into the plans of manager Diego Alonso?
Here’s a breakdown of what is in store for Miami fans.
What Miami is getting
When the Juventus players came back to training after the coronavirus lockdown ended, Matuidi was among the fittest players, again, in the Italian champions’ squad. At 33 — and with Cristiano Ronaldo, two years older, as an example — the Frenchman worked hard during confinement. And that’s little surprise; he has been the fittest man on the team pretty much everywhere he has been: from Troyes and Saint-Etienne, to Paris Saint-Germain and Turin. He is the one who excels in every physical session, exercise or test; the one who runs more than anyone else, even in training; the one who never stops pressing, hassling the opposition, recovering the ball.
What Inter Miami is getting is a proper athlete. From a very early age — when he was at the famous INF Clairefontaine academy that produced many top French players, including Thierry Henry, Kylian Mbappe and Nicolas Anelka — Matuidi boasted better fitness than his peers. He has an incredible capacity to repeat effort, even at high intensity. This has been the main aspect of his game. Of course, he can pass the ball, too, but technically he is not as gifted as others.
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In addition to the energy he will bring to midfield, where he will be useful is in sharing his experience from the highest levels of the game. Matuidi has won many trophies — in Paris, in Turin and with the French national team — and this level of accomplishment will be priceless for such a young club as Inter Miami. He has the pedigree, he knows how to win and he knows how to unite a dressing room and a squad. There’s no doubt he will instill this mentality in Miami.
Because even at 33, Matuidi hasn’t lost any desire or ambition. He still is determined to be the best. He says he doesn’t want to come to MLS, settling in South Florida, to get a head start on retirement; he wants to have a positive impact on the team and the league. He will want to win MLS Cup in the three years he’s at the club. He always is one of the most positive members in the dressing room, always focused on the team and team spirit, always thinking team first and offering great advice. He is a real competitor and his presence will be hugely important for Miami’s younger players.
Matuidi might not become a manager once his playing career is over, but off the pitch he enjoys being a father figure to younger teammates. He did that this past season for Adrien Rabiot, who like his compatriot, left PSG to come to Turin and relied on Matuidi to settle in Italy.
After a week or so, it will feel like Matuidi has been at Inter Miami all his life. He loves Miami as a city and he has been going there on holiday for many years with his wife, Isabelle, and their three children. He loves the U.S. culture and lifestyle and he had always wanted to finish his career in MLS. He now has an opportunity to do just that.
How Matuidi will fill in
Any judgment about a player acquisition in MLS, particularly a foreign one, is tied to value. After all, this is a league with a salary cap, meaning teams can’t afford to get it wrong when it comes to its more expensive signings.
When news of Matuidi’s arrival broke this week, the assumption was that he would be a Designated Player and the immediate question was: Why is Miami investing so much in a player whose strength is tackling and winning the ball back when the team is desperate for someone to create chances? For that reason, Matuidi’s presumed arrival caused some head-scratching. It has since emerged that Matuidi is being signed at a discounted price that won’t make him a DP and for that reason. It becomes a far shrewder signing.
Not only is Miami getting an accomplished, experienced player to fill a need in midfield, but the team still can scour the open market and spend big for more pure attacking options.
Blaise Matuidi will bring world-class pedigree, mentality and leadership to Inter Miami. Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images
“Our plan going into this pandemic break was to add a dynamic midfielder and a DP striker or attacking player,” Miami GM Paul McDonough told ESPN. “That still holds true.”
As for why Matuidi agreed to the discounted deal, one need look no further than the presence of his former PSG teammate, David Beckham, as the team co-owner.
“David talked with [Matuidi] about the project, and we talked more and more, and it just seemed like the right time for Blaise to be a part of it,” McDonough said. “With his experience, with his dynamic quality, it was just a great opportunity for us. We’re really appreciative of him believing in the project and David’s vision.”
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In terms of where Matuidi fits into Miami’s lineup, there appears to be three options. The first is that he flanks Wil Trapp with Victor Ulloa on the other side of a three-man central midfield. This has the advantage of reprising the role he had for Juventus in his final season with the Serie A champions. But it also leaves open the issue of where to play Rodolfo Pizarro, who remains Miami’s best attacking player. Playing with a three-man midfield would shunt Pizarro to the wing in all likelihood instead of the more central role he now occupies. This would require a bit more defensive responsibility on Pizarro.
The other options would see Pizarro stay central in a 4-2-3-1, with Matuidi replacing either Ulloa or Trapp as one of the holding midfielders. Or he could play as one of the attacking three, most likely on the left considering he’s left-footed.
Beyond the tactical considerations, there will be the usual adjustments for a player from abroad, namely the summer weather and in particular the travel. Adapting to these differences has historically proved impossible to predict. For every Wayne Rooney who lit it up in MLS, there was a Steven Gerrard who didn’t. Playing in South Florida’s insufferable summer heat, at 33 years of age — after he completes the required 10-day quarantine upon arrival — will be a challenge. All that said, Matuidi will make Miami better, and for a fraction of the presumed salary outlay.
“This is a long-term play for us,” McDonough said. “We know the timing may not be great in the short term, but we’re going through the visa process now and we’ll get him in here and quarantine him and then we’ll integrate him into the team.”