Manchester United made it 11 wins in 13 matches under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Monday, cruising past Chelsea in a 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge. Thanks to first-half goals from midfielders Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba, the Red Devils eliminated the defending champions from FA Cup competition, and head into this weekend’s contentious match against Liverpool with some confidence.
There was talk about how United would rebound following their first loss under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, especially given the plight of matches still looming on the agenda. While a defeat was inevitable, it’s safe to say Solskjaer’s men are reacting to setbacks with better morale under the Norwegian caretaker manager than with his predecessor José Mourinho.
One thing Solskjaer has rightfully deserved credit for during his two months in charge has been his ability to demand and successfully bring out the best in his roster. In a matter of weeks, Herrera has emerged as a fan favorite, and discussion has ensued about the Spaniard’s potential to wear the captain’s armband permanently. Alongside him, Nemanja Matić soared to athletic capabilities never seen in the Mourinho regime, and that says a lot about the former United manager’s handling of his most trusted player.
Prior to Mourinho’s December exit, it was clear Matić desperately needed a respite from his midfield duties. The 30-year-old’s form was declining, and it was obvious his mobility and stamina had seen better days. Unfortunately, his former boss didn’t interpret those signs as exhaustion, and continued to employ the Serbian’s talents for a full 90 minutes each match. The Special One’s dismissal seemingly meant that Matić’s future as a first-team fixture was doubtful. In spite of that, he pressed on to perform at the level demanded by his new boss.
This shift in performance soon began to yield substantial results. In the early weeks following Solskjaer’s appointment, Matić reminded fans why Mourinho splashed £40m for three years of his services, and it was painfully obvious that his former manager’s tactics was affecting the form of even his most trust lieutenant.
Fast forward thirteen matches, and it appears Matić has reverted to his former self. United may have won the duel at Stamford Bridge on Monday, but Matić’s contributions were less than desired. In the opening 15 minutes of the match, he picked up a yellow card. However, it would be a second challenge on N’Golo Kanté that would leave audiences wondering if he deserved a another caution from officials. It was a clumsy decision, but he ultimately escaped with just one booking to his name.
Nonetheless, the nervy decision-making on his end point to a larger concern for the former Chelsea man. The demands of maintaining stellar performances throughout each match is slowly catching up to Matić, and it’s evident that a break is unlikely for him.
In the Solskjaer reign, Matić, Herrera and Pogba have made up United’s midfield three in 10 of 13 fixtures. The only exceptions where Matić and Pogba were absent from the lineup was the 2-0 FA Cup win over Reading when a complete second string took the pitch.
While it’s delightful that Solskjaer has supreme faith in this trio, it doesn’t bode well for the slew of back-up midfielders who are itching at minutes on the pitch. Andreas Pereira was given a starting chance against Burnley in January, but squandered it on a miffed pass that eventually resulted in a goal for the Clarets. The Brazilian returned to the pitch Monday, coming on for Juan Mata in the 76th minute.
Fred is the obvious other choice to give Matić a breather, and his absence from play is perplexing. After spending £52.5m on him in July 2018, Mourinho bragged to the press that he was the missing link to United’s underdeveloped midfield.
“Nemanja Matić, Marouane Fellaini, Paul Pogba and even Ander Herrera are physical and strong players,” the Portuguese told the media last summer.
“We think having a player like Fred in the squad — who is more technical, with more quality of passing in short spaces — he can maybe connect [with] the attacking players.”
With such a lofty price tag, he should be the second-choice option to give Matić a well-earned break in the middle, but similar to Mourinho, Solskjaer apparently hasn’t impressed enough in training to warrant a showcase of his strengths on match day. Consequently, the Brazilian is now sits behind both Pereira and Scott McTominay in the midfield pecking order.
Fred has not started a Premier League match since Boxing Day, when he was selected for the 3-1 win against Huddersfield Town. Since then, the 25-year-old’s only appearance has come in that FA Cup triumph against Reading in January.
His omission echoes centre-back Victor Lindelöf’s challenging first year at Old Trafford. The Swedish international struggled to prove his worth last year, but slow flashes of brilliance (and short injuries spells for Chris Smalling and Phil Jones) eventually earned him a coveted starting role. Fred might not get the start on Sunday against Liverpool, but United’s matches following this weekend’s competition come against Crystal Palace and Southampton, which could mean potential for a return.
Nemanja Matić recently told Inside United he can play “10 more years,” but to guarantee that he must be well rested in the coming weeks. His services are a clear benefit to Manchester United, but should not be depleted as the Red Devils look to finish the year with a trophy and a top four finish.