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Tactical Analysis: What Nemanja Matić does and doesn’t bring to Manchester United

The defensive midfielder who plays best in attacking teams

Manchester United v Wolverhampton Wanderers - FA Cup Third Round: Replay Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

Prior to New Years Eve I threw a spicy take out into The Busby Babe Slack channel:

I know we all like to give him stick for not having legs and being about as mobile as a traffic cone, but it appears that Nemanja Matić is still an ok/competent footballer...

... as long as he’s not paired with Scott McTominay.

At the time, Manchester United hadn’t conceded a single goal when Matić was on the pitch paired with anyone other than McTominay (Fred, Andreas Pereira, James Garner). Admittedly this is an awful sample since most of those games were against lower level opposition in the Europa League or the League Cup, but I had just watched him boss the midfield with Fred against Burnley, so why not?

Thank god I didn’t go public with that take, because then Matić came out against Arsenal and showed us exactly how limited he is, and how much United suffer because of that.

In theory, Arsenal should have been a straightforward match for United. They’re a team built around their attacking players, therefore they like to get forward, but they struggle in defense and leave plenty of space to be attacked. This is United’s dream and they got started on that right away.

Daniel James breaks down the right wing and draws a yellow card from Sead Kolasinac. This should have happened all game. Kolasinac doesn’t have the pace to keep up with James and he knows it. United should have been tormenting them.

Alas, things are never straightforward. Arsenal was in the midst of a new manager bump. It was the busy festive period, the third game in six days, and United looked extremely leggy.

They also, thanks to injuries to an already paper-thin squad, had to start Nemanja Matić.

As I said before, this should have been the perfect game for United to play on the break. Arsenal away always is. United have been scoring counter attacking goals at the Emirates for years. Jesse Lingard in the FA Cup last season. Rooney, Ronaldo, and Park in the Champions League a decade ago. Hell, Rooney and Di Maria even had one in a Louis van Gaal team that never countered.

Had United’s forwards been able to run at the Arsenal defenders, the Gunners would have been in a world of trouble. The forwards looked to do it too, but it never happened. Why? Because United’s attacks stopped before they started at the feet of Nemanja Matić.

The most important element of an attack is the first pass. It needs to be quick. It needs to be direct. It needs to be incisive.

This is one of the worst areas of Matić’s game. He’s slow, not just in his pace, but in his ability to make that first pass. He’s also risk averse.

Here’s a situation early in the first half, where Matić’s patience on the ball costs United. He gets the ball and when he doesn’t immediately keep it moving, he’s quickly out of options. Being forced to improvise, Matić brings the ball upfield himself, which is certainly not one of his strong suits. With everything moving quickly Matić tries to force a pass to Rashford; it goes behind him and United lose the ball.

Later, United start pushing up from the back and get the ball wide to Luke Shaw. Shaw holds up and gives the ball to Matić where...

Matić just holds the ball and does what exactly? When Matić got this ball Rashford took off and made a run, but Matić doesn’t deliver the ball. He ends up holding it until Rashford comes back for it, but because Rashford isn’t in any position to attack, he has to go straight back to Harry Maguire. There was no point in any of that.

Occasionally Matić did finally play a long ball, but even then that would come after much delay.

Again, when Matić gets the ball Martial starts his run. Matić takes so long to get rid of it that by the time he plays the ball, Martial is already offside and had to stop his run.

The crown jewel of it all came late in the first half, when Fred actually got a break started and started running at Arsenal.

When Arsenal finally close him down, he lays it off to Matić. Here’s what Matić does.

Look closely at the beginning of the clip, Fred puts his arms out in frustration over the lack of things happening here. Now me, watching on TV and only privy to this angle, thought Fred was upset about the same thing I was. I thought Matić could have just quickly played that ball back to Fred to continue the break.

Luckily NBC commentator Lee Dixon was able to provide some more context in what happened off screen. Here’s what he said.

Well Rashford’s disgusted with that as well. You know, as I said to you before, the ball’s gotta go early. Get your head up, out your feet, and it’s gone. One of them will go. Martial, Rashford, it’s almost easy to play in midfield, one of them will make a run.

You almost don’t have to look [Arlo]. Know the areas they’re going to run into (inside-left inside right) and the ball’s over the top.

That was the story of the match. Rashford, Martial, and James were trying to make runs and the balls never found their way to them. Remember how James torched Kolasinac three minutes into the game? It was a non-issue for Arsenal because United couldn’t get him the ball again.

After the match former United players Rio Ferdinand and Robin van Persie lamented on how frustrated United’s forwards were this game when they made run after run and the ball never came.

Ok, so Matić isn’t good at launching attacks. He never has been and he’s still been a useful player in title winning teams. At least he’s a big physical body that could be useful on set pieces though right?

Matić doesn’t even attack this! He’s lined up against David Luiz, and if he just makes a straight run it would take him right where the ball is played.

Arsenal’s game plan was particularly brilliant on New Year’s Day. They managed to both out-possess United and sit deep. Part of that was due to United being so patient in their buildup that it allowed Arsenal time to get back and organize themselves. Once they were back, United struggled to break them down, which often lured Matić in even closer.

You can imagine what his contribution was like there.

Matić just doesn’t have the ability to settle the ball and play it quickly. When he tries to, this is the result. A poor pass that Jesse Lingard can’t do anything with.

The Gunners managed to imbalance United’s midfield by sitting deep and sucking Matić in. Fred was often playing as a lone midfielder and this prevented United from keeping any possession.

Nemanja Matic’s heat map vs Arsenal

Matić’s presence in the team has unsurprisingly coincided with a drop in United’s attacking output. Without Paul Pogba United average 13.93 shots per game (down from 16.62 with Pogba). When Matić plays, that number falls to 11.20 shots per game (a number that is heavily inflated by the 13 shots taken against Norwich due to the small sample size). Even worse, their shots on target per game has fallen from 5.86 without Pogba to 4.6 when Matić is out there.

OK, I realize I’m not breaking any news to you to tell you that Nemanja Matić’s offensive contributions are next to nothing. But at the same time, the statement I made at the beginning of this post — that Matić is still an ok/competent footballer — isn’t completely false.

Matić is a defensive midfielder. His defensive numbers this year (small sample size alert!) are pretty much about where he’s been over the past two years (3.01 PA/Tackles per 90, 7.81 recoveries per 90).

He’s positionally excellent, providing a screen in front of the back four. If his lack of mobility has any positives, it’s that it typically prevents him from getting out of position.

So how can we measure Matić’s contributions towards the team? There isn’t really a perfect metric, but I chose to look at xGBuildup. After-all, Matić’s game is to win the ball, and make the simple pass to someone else who can go do the creative things.

(For a quick explanation of xGBuildup, when a shot is taken it gets assigned an xG value. xGBuildup provides that same value to every player on the attacking team who was involved in the chain of buildup with the exception of the player who shot and the player who assisted the shot).

Matić’s xGBuildup/90 has been remarkably consistent since arriving at Old Trafford, posting a 0.40 in 2017/18 and a 0.41 in 2018/19. But it was certain stretches in both seasons that actually showed where Matić shines.

Due to how his career played out, Matić will always be associated with José Mourinho. When we think of him we think of the typical Mourinho midfielder: big, strong, a physical presence. Someone who defends well and doesn’t take risks, especially with the ball.

That’s Matić to a tee, and it makes sense to think that his best moments have come when playing in Mourinho’s very rigid scheme. It turns out that is just not true.

Last year with United fading quickly under Mourinho it looked like Matić’s legs had gone out to pasture. When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over it looked like Matić’s run in the team would come to an end.

Instead, Solskjaer installed Matić at the base of a three man midfield alongside Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera. For nine games, until injuries hit them, Solskjaer trotted out that trio to great effect. Matić’s job was simple: recover the ball and move it along to the more creative players. He did that tremendously, recording an xGBuildup of 0.65 over that stretch.

Over the rest of the 2018/19 season (five games under OGS and 14 under Mourinho) his xGBuildup/90 was 0.27, a significant drop.

The second period where Matić particularly outshone himself were his first four games after he arrived at Old Trafford. Think back to the start of the 2017/18 season. Sure, City were doing crazy things but United were blowing teams out the water themselves. Matić looked like the missing piece in United’s midfield as they opened the season with consecutive 4-0 victories.

Matić played in the base of a two man midfield alongside Paul Pogba and behind a front four of Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford/Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. That front four was very fluid, with Mata, Rashford, Mkhitaryan, and Lukaku all interchanging freely. It drove defenses nuts and was particularly anti-Mourinho. It continued this way until Pogba picked up an injury. Without Pogba, Mkhitaryan’s form quickly dropped, the results stopped coming and Mourinho returned to his pragmatism.

Matić’s xGBuildup/90 during that four game stretch? 0.50.

Here’s a chart with a breakdown of his xGBuildup in several different scenarios.

We learn something from this. Matić is actually at his best when he’s around creative players, playing in a more free flowing attack. Let Matić sit deep and protect the back four and let everyone else go off and do what they do best.

Two of Matić’s highest xGBuildup games in 2017/18 were the away games to Crystal Palace (0.59) and Manchester City (0.82). That shouldn’t come as a surprise. United were down 2-0 at halftime of both of them, and in the second half they went for broke. All that attacking talent was allowed to get forward and were free of Mourinho’s constraints. Matić simply got them the ball.

It’s when things get rigid that Matić begins to struggle. Rigidity tends to slow things down. When you slow things down the opposition can get set and that requires you to devote more men forward to create an attack. Two things happen then: Matić has to get more involved in the buildup than he’d like, and he also can get caught out going the other way.

That’s exactly how Arsenal pounced for their first goal, and look at where Matić is.

United get confused by the interior overlap (underlap?) of Kolasinac, but Matić... doesn’t really do much? He drops to the goal line but leaves two men completely unchecked in the middle of the box (this goal is not the fault of Matić, and Pepe isn’t his responsibility, but he’s in not really anywhere of value either).

Matić’s struggle with rigidity explains why he was a disaster against Arsenal. When you want to hit teams on a counter, you need to be well organized and you need to get rid of the ball fast. Those are the two things that Matić struggles with.

That was probably the thinking Solskjaer had when he decided to drop Matić for the League Cup semi-final against Manchester City, and instead go with Andreas Pereira and Fred in midfield. Both stay organized, both move the ball quickly. Both can spring attacks. But they both lack physicality, which has been exposed every time they’re a pair. Matić coming in in the second half saved United, but with him it’s always give and take.

This also backs up the last point I made: “as long as he’s not paired with Scott McTominay.” McTominay isn’t a creative midfielder. Playing him next to Matić creates the burden of rigidity.

This year they started as a pair against Leicester and West Ham. Both games were devoid of any creativity and Matić didn’t make it 90 minutes in either of them. They’ve started together in a midfield three even fewer times. Four to be exact. In two of those McTominay was subbed off at halftime because United were down 2-0. They came back to win 3-2 in each of them.

What Matić has proven over the past few games is that he can still be a useful part of this team. That doesn’t mean he should be considered for every match. Hell no. But would it be the end of the world to trigger the one year extension? I don’t think so.

As you can see from the team right now, injuries happen. You need midfielders. In a perfect world United would have five of them (Pogba, Fred, McTominay, Matić, Garner) from which to choose. That would enable Solskjaer to pick his starters based on form and matchup.

Playing against Newcastle? Fred and Pogba. Playing Arsenal? McTominay and Pogba. Playing Liverpool? Maybe you want a three of Fred, McTominay, and Pogba. Playing three games in six days, one of which is against Burnley? How about Matić and Fred there!

Every minute wears on players legs. Someone has to play those League Cup and Europa League minutes. If used correctly, Nemanja Matić can still do that job for Manchester United.