Last week, Manchester United handed a three-year contract to Nemanja Matic. We opine why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s decision to do so is justified
What a roller-coaster of a season it has been for Manchester United. Flashback to the early months of their campaign, and the Red Devils were barely in the top half of the table, struggling for any semblance of consistency. Midfield, in particular, was attributed to be the cause of their struggles; and for good reason.
Back then, Manchester United had chosen not to sign Bruno Fernandes, inexplicably bowing out of the race to sign him as the summer transfer window approached its end. But, while the Red Devils were sorely lacking creative options, apart from Paul Pogba, in midfield, they also seemed to be in desperate need to sign a holding midfielder.
After all, Nemanja Matic was coming off a disastrous 2018/19 season, wherein he seemed to have lost a lot of mobility and had not offered a great deal of value to the squad. Things were so dire at the onset of the season that it was reported that Matic was keen to have talks with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to seek clarity over his role in the first-team setup.
That was then; this is now; and things have turned around dramatically, not just for the veteran Serb but for the entire department. No longer is midfield proving to be a liability for Solskjaer, with Scott McTominay and Fred stepping up admirably. Bruno Fernandes is now at the club and has quickly established himself as a key figure – it was better late than never, signing him.
Meanwhile, Pogba has put his injury nightmares behind him and now seems to be a happy camper. A move away from the club might no longer be a formality. The biggest surprise, though, has come in the form of a reinvigorated Matic; so much so, it is now hard to imagine any Manchester United starting lineup without the lanky Serb in it.
The kind of impact Matic has made is visible in the basic numbers. In the 17 Premier League games he has not featured at all, Manchester United have won just 6 games, with the winning rate being a dreadful 35.2 percent. On the other hand, United have won 11 of the 19 games he has played in, the ratio jumping up to 58 percent.
Yes, there are other factors at play as well; most notably, the impact of Bruno Fernandes. So, let us compare the goals conceded tally, considering much of the back four has more or less remained constant over the course of the season. When Matic has played a league game, Manchester United have conceded around 0.78 goals per game. That figure goes up to 1.17 in his absence.
With Matic clearly making a huge impact while on the pitch, United invariably decided to extend his stay at the club, rewarding him with a new three-year deal recently. Now, handing out such a deal to a player aged over 30 is highly unusual for Manchester United. More often than not, the Red Devils give such players a one-year extension. This time around, though, such a decision makes sense. Here’s why.
Perfect foil for the relentless Bruno Fernandes and an “unlocked” Paul Pogba… and a few others
In the days leading up to the resumption of the Premier League following the end of lockdown, a lot of talk pertaining to Manchester United centered around a budding partnership between Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. Training ground footage revealed that the duo had already started linking up beautifully, leaving United fans thrilled over the prospect of watching the two together on the pitch for the very first time.
All that excitement has hardly been for nothing, with Pogba and Fernandes showing incredible chemistry and combining to become an extremely creative duo. However, without the presence of Matic behind them, the two enterprising midfielders might not be able to express themselves as freely as they have so far.
Pogba has shown more positional discipline and is often seen sitting back, but his natural style of play means he can lose the ball while trying to release a teammate into space. Fernandes, too, plays his game in a similar nature during the offensive phase. Combined, the duo lose the ball 35.5 times on average every game.
At times, Pogba is also in and around the box and that could theoretically leave a lot of space between the front five and the defence. To safeguard against a counter-attack, Manchester United need a solid holding midfielder, who can read the game better than anyone on the pitch and eliminate any possible threats.
This is where Matic comes in. At this stage of his career, he does not have the same mobility that he did when he was at Chelsea, nor the pace to keep up with express opponents. However, he more than makes up for it with his anticipation, positioning himself perfectly to absorb any threat that the opposition might look to create. And, herein lies another benefit of having Matic in the side.
When Manchester United have the possession, Matic smartly positions himself between the two centre-backs, essentially creating a makeshift back-three. This not only allows the full-backs the freedom charge forward and create overloads in the final third, it also helps the two centre-backs to push forward on the odd occasion.
Case in point, the first goal that Manchester United scored against Brighton & Hove Albion earlier this month. With Matic positioned as an auxiliary central defender, Victor Lindelof veered into the Brighton half. It is here that Mason Greenwood was provided with some space around the box, as the Seagulls’ left-back Dan Burn was sucked out of position to deal with Lindelof.
Greenwood would go on to score United’s first of the game. Another aspect of his smart positioning allows Matic to cover for either of the two centre-backs in case they are overrun, thereby restricting the chances that any opponent looks to create. Finally, his passing abilities, which enable him to set a quick tempo to the game, are another boon for Manchester United.
In a team that already boasts of creative geniuses like Pogba and Fernandes, Matic’s link-up with the duo allows either (or both) of them to be placed in the half spaces further up the pitch instead of dropping deep and unnecessarily letting the opposition time to settle into their shape.
All in all, Matic is the ideal fit in Solskjaer’s midfield because of everything he brings to the table and because no other midfielder in the side has such an arsenal of characteristics.
Lack of a natural replacement within the squad
We have talked about what Matic offers to Manchester United from the holding midfield slot. But, what about the other contenders for the same position? After all, if this season is anything go by, Matic is competing with Scott McTominay and Fred for essentially one place in the side.
McTominay seems to be second in the pecking order, but he still has some shortcomings in his game that are not allowing him to become a regular. While the young Scotsman can drop deep to play the supplemental centre-half role, he is still not up to scratch when it comes to the other two qualities that Matic possesses.
McTominay does have a good forward pass in him but he does not have the same range, although if the season so far is anything to go by, he is adding to it. His reading of the game, too, is not at the same level yet and he is a better fit in games where Manchester United need to press the opposition aggressively.
Even Fred is ideally suited when Manchester United need to force the opponent into making an error. In addition, when on the ball, the Brazilian has the tendency to take one more touch than is needed, which can snap the momentum of their moves.
Compare McTominay and Fred with Matic and it is clear that the imposing Serb has all that it takes to give Manchester United the control they need in games. However, one of the two backups could one day take over from him, which is why his presence in the squad for the next few years is even more vital.
Grooming Scott McTominay, his possible successor
McTominay might not have the prerequisite qualities to have Manchester United play around him just yet. However, if his career progression is anything to go by, it is evident that the 23-year-old is someone who can adapt to different positions, taking on the traits that are needed to succeed there.
To be fair to him, McTominay did look like he had the holding midfield position nailed down before Matic turned his fortunes around. The Scottish international, though, can be groomed to take over from his more experienced teammate when it is time for him to move on.
At the start of the season, there were doubts about his ability to reprise the no. 6 slot, but he quickly adjusted to the demands of the role, improving his positioning abilities as the season wore on. Having said that, he still needs to be more disciplined when covering up for Pogba and Fernandes, while his reading of the game is a work in progress.
As for his passing abilities, McTominay is constantly improving on that account as well. With Matic present in the squad to primp him up, McTominay could, in due course, be conditioned to take the chinks out of his armour and become the undisputed choice to be the deepest lying midfielder as he approaches the peak years of his career, something Matic himself has alluded towards.
“Scott knows that I am always there for him if he needs some advice, he is still learning. I am happy with how he has progressed, he is improving. I’ve said already a few times that he will be a very important player for Manchester United in the future.”
With an experienced head like Matic grooming him, the day is not far when McTominay becomes a finished article, providing Solskjaer with a definitive alternative for Matic, which is something that is in the best interests of Manchester United. Till then, Matic is the man to control the midfield.