There has been a lot of discussion about how Nemanja Matić will “free” Paul Pogba in Manchester United’s midfield. But what does “freeing” look like?
To answer this question, it is important to look at the available data. Using an expected goals model (i.e., the number of goals expected by the area where a shot was taken on the pitch), it is possible to examine Pogba’s aggressiveness.
Parsing the numbers, when Pogba plays in central midfield with a holding midfielder or as a central attacking midfielder – as was the case at Juventus and Manchester United when Michael Carrick played – the French midfielder is noticeably more aggressive.
This aggression can be seen by his expected goals per match. In general, at United, his expected output was .21 goals per match. Further, even when one removes the matches where Pogba was playing as a defensive midfielder, his expected goals per match decreases slightly, but not significantly. Is Pogba just not an aggressive player for Mourinho?
To answer this question, I looked at a nine-game stretch between December 4th, 2016 and January 15th, 2017. This stretch began when Michael Carrick gained a starting spot as a holding midfielder and ended when Carrick got hurt. Pogba’s numbers were never the same after that, but said stretch reveals a lot about Pogba.
During this period, Pogba’s expected goals per match and goals per match significantly increased. In that stretch, per WhoScored, Pogba took 47% of his season’s shots, and converted them at a noticeably higher rate.
Another great way to look at the difference between Pogba’s overall play and during this nine-match stretch is by examining heat maps. Pointedly, let’s compare Pogba’s heat map against Crystal Palace during the nine-match stretch, and then towards the end of the season.
Above is Pogba’s heat map against Crystal Palace on December 14, 2016. He is clearly playing more aggressively, and this is signified by the French midfielder’s four shots and one goal.
This is the second heat map from Manchester United’s May 21, 2017 match against Crystal Palace. In this match, Pogba was playing as a defensive midfielder. One thing that is important to note is that Mourinho mainly played substitutes in this match, as his focus was on the Europa League Final.
Nevertheless, Pogba’s touched the ball seventy-two times less than in the first match, and, as demonstrated by the heat map, most of his play occurred as a defender. Furthermore, Pogba only took one shot – albeit a goal.
Essentially, Pogba’s best skill is his versatility as a box-to-box midfielder. In fact, many would argue the Frenchman is the best box-to-box midfielder in the world. Yet, when he has to play further back on the pitch, it does not let Pogba move across the boxes. This limits his aggressiveness, and consequently, his effectiveness. Consequently, when Pogba was paired with Carrick (hardly a star holding midfielder), the former was far more important in United’s attack.
So how does Matić enable Pogba to constantly play in this way?
Overall, the Serbian will allow the Frenchman to maintain an attacking position in United’s shape. Below is a clip from Manchester United’s last friendly against Sampdoria that demonstrates this tactical advantage.
Another way to view Matić’s role is by examining how he freed midfielders at Chelsea. One good match to demonstrate this is Chelsea’s 4-2 FA Cup win against Tottenham from April 2017. Below is Matić’s heat map from said match.
Matić’s heat map is relatively unimpressive. All that is worth noting is how he was primarily stationed in defensive areas and only touched the ball twenty-eight times over ninety minutes. What is more interesting is to look at the combined heat maps of Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso.
What this shows is that Moses at right midfield, and Alonso at left midfield, were able to stretch the entire length of the pitch. Furthermore, they were able to attack more than they would without a defensive presence like Matić.
Thus, United watchers should expect Matić to be deployed in a similar way at Old Trafford. His primary responsibility will be to sit between the midfield and backline where he will prevent opposing attackers from easily advancing. This addition will allow Pogba to play higher up the pitch, and therefore, Manchester United’s best player will finally be unleashed in the Premier League.