Bruno Fernandes rightly gets credited for vaulting Manchester United from fighting for a Europa League place to a third place finish and Champions League qualification in 2019-20. But while Fernandes provided the end product, it was two much less heralded players that were massively influential in keeping United within shouting distance of the Champions League before Fernandes arrived.
Those players were Dan James and Nemanja Matić.
It’s easy to forget this now but James was a massively influential player over the first half of the 2019-20 season. His three goals and six assists before the New Year played a huge part in keeping United around fifth place when they were struggling for consistency. If United scored a late goal in the autumn of 2019, odds are Daniel James was involved. He scored a late equalizer against Crystal Palace, assisted Marcus Rashford shoulda been winner against Sheffield United, and assisted Mason Greenwood’s equalizer against Everton.
Last January, Nemanja Matić came back into the team. He brought stability to an often erratic midfield, and helped stabilize a shaky defense. His ability in the air helped United eliminate their nasty habit of conceding goals from set pieces (a habit which has come back even stronger this season). It was Matić’s presence that allowed Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes to operate with freedom when United played their best football of the season during Project Restart.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may have never named this exact starting XI last season, but the absence of Paul Pogba (who missed two thirds of the season last year), as well as new signings Donny van de Beek and Edinson Cavani, gave Sunday’s match against Newcastle a very 2019-20 feeling. Therefore it only makes sense that United’s two standout performers were the two role players who stood out during parts of last season but have struggled to really get going this season.
James, fresh off a fantastic display against Real Sociedad, picked up right where he left off. The Welshman was up and down the pitch helping out both in attack and on defense and was justly rewarded with another goal for his efforts. That’s his fourth goal in essentially his last six appearances for United (not counting the four minutes he played against Aston Villa). But the real star of the show and the integral piece to everything was Matić.
An injury to Scott McTominay meant a recall for Matić to partner Fred in midfield. That comes with a whole bunch of pros and cons in and of itself. On one hand, these two players complement each other really well. On the other, in the areas where they don’t complement each other, they really expose the worst part of each other’s games. [Editor’s note: This same description can be applied to United’s first-choice center back pairing.]
Going back to last season, United just don’t concede many goals when the two play together in midfield. This is a sample that includes matches against bottom of the table clubs (Newcastle, Watford, West Brom), as well as matches against the big six (Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City).
Defensively, Matić brings out the best in Fred. He reads the game well and doesn’t get sucked into over aggressive challenges which severely reduces the amount of times Fred gets isolated in midfield and has to engage in 1v1 tackle attempts. This allows Fred to focus more on his man, and engage in fewer duels. He can also provide more help and protection to Victor Lindelöf.
I’m not breaking any news when I tell you that Matić isn’t the most mobile or pacey midfielder out there, but Fred’s recovery pace makes that a non-issue. When United get caught high up the pitch, Fred’s ability to get back provides a massive security blanket to the defenders. Instead of having to engage with attackers and try and win the ball back, they can just ‘delay’ attackers knowing they’ll have help.
Here Lindelöf doesn’t even have to get into a foot race because Fred is already on the prowl. By keeping his angles right despite his lack of pace, the attacker has nowhere to go and eventually will run out of time.
That’s the good that this pair provides, and it was immediately followed by the bad. Harry Maguire wins the ball back, gives it to Fred, who badly misses an easy pass to Luke Shaw.
Fred doesn’t misplace too many passes. He only misplaced seven of the 69 (nice) passes he attempted on Sunday (according to Fbref, anyway — it was 74 according to StatsZone). But when he does misplace passes, he often does it in hilarious fashion, so we remember them all.
Not that Matić is perfect either. Both players are good but not great passers, and they frustrate fans by missing incredibly simple and easy passes far too often.
This is where the pair bring out the worst of each other. Regardless of who he’s paired with, Matić always plays on the left side of United’s midfield. When Fred plays with Pogba or McTominay he plays on the left, but moves to the right when playing next to Matić.
They’re both really good at making quick short passes, which is really good if you’re the player on the left hand side. As a midfielder, your job is to get the ball to your dangerous players in dangerous areas as often as possible. United’s most important buildup player is their left-back and their two most dangerous players are Marcus Rashford and Bruno, typically the left winger and attacking midfielder.
That means for the left-sided midfielder, you don’t need to be much of an expansive passer to get the ball to these players quickly.
The right-sided midfielder on the other hand has a much more difficult job. Fred can get the ball straight ahead to Bruno, but his triangle on the right (Aaron Wan-Bissaka, plus Dan James or Mason Greenwood, or anyone on the right wing that’s not Juan Mata) don’t contribute to build-up play the way the players on the left do.
Fred’s choices then become very limited. If he tries to bring Wan-Bissaka or James into the fold, odds are they’re just going to give the ball back to him (and that time allows the defense to get more men back), and he’s just going to have recycle possession back through his center backs. If he doesn’t want to do that, he needs to get more expansive with his passing, which isn’t his game and leads to more misplaced passes, as evidenced by his pass map for the game.
This is where United really miss Paul Pogba. He’s the only midfielder at the club who can pass anywhere from that right central midfield position and continue to get everyone involved.
There’s one other area where this partnership hurts. When your buildup is so left-side heavy, you end up with a lot of passing triangles on the left side. That typically leaves open space at the top of the box for your right midfielder to run into.
That open space is great when you have McTominay or Pogba who can shoot from the top of the box. Less great when your right midfielder is Fred, who very much cannot. There’s a reason that the only time United’s left midfielder has scored this year was Pogba when playing next to McTominay against West Ham. And technically McTominay was the “left” (he was more of the only) midfielder when he smashed this bad boy home.
Nevertheless, the pros of the Matić-Fred pair typically outweigh the cons because of everything else Matić brings to the table. Namely, his brain.
The way Matić reads the game allows him to play smarter not harder. It helps him cover for the physical deficiencies he has, but he also takes up smart positions which keeps the balance of the rest of the team intact and keeps his teammates in positions where they can be most effective.
Last week against West Brom Bruno Fernandes dropped deeper than United’s other midfielders to get the ball. That’s not where you want Bruno to have the ball. Watch how Matić creates an angle to open himself up for a pass here, but more importantly blocks off a potential pass to Bruno, forcing the magnifico to get his ass back near the box where he’s at his most dangerous.
Similarly, since Fred, McTominay, and to a degree Matić, struggle with progressing the ball, you’ll often see Harry Maguire take that upon himself against low blocks. Maguire is exceptional when driving forward with the ball, but last week against West Brom Maguire took 32 touches — and completed the most passes — in the final third. That’s too much! Driving forward is great but you can’t have your center back be your creator either!
Against Newcastle, Matić was able to bring balance back to United. To account for his and Fred’s limited passing range, Solskjaer’s plan was simple: get the ball out wide where your pacey wingers can run at defenders. Fred being left-footed allowed him to get the ball to the right more than McTominay does, resulting in Rashford and James leading the team with 11 progressive carries. Right up there with them were Shaw and Matić. In other words: if the pass wasn’t there, they didn’t make it, but rather carried the ball forward before slipping the pass in.
Ultimately it was no surprise that Matić had a hand in all three United goals, thanks to his patience and brain.
The first one is the most subtle of them all. United are passing the ball around the back, and Matić comes to the middle to give Victor Lindelöf a passing option. Lindelöf gives the ball to Matić, and with a man on his back Matić passes first time back to Maguire.
Matić then notices that Rashford is open on the wing. Maguire can’t make that pass from where he is, but Matić realizes that instead of cutting to the open space and trying to receive a pass — at best — on the half turn, United have a better chance of getting that ball to Rashford if Maguire runs into that spot himself and then plays the pass (Maguire carrying forward is good, just in moderation).
Matić holds his ground in the middle of the pitch, leaving the space free for Maguire. Maguire carries forward and is then able to get the ball out wide where Rashford is 1v1 with the fullback and can be at his most dangerous.
The next two goals are created because Matić has something that far too many United players currently lack: good decision-making in the final third.
On the second goal, Matić gets the ball right on the edge of the box with his back to the middle. His initial thought is ‘give it right back to the creative players.’ But Rashford runs right at him, taking himself out of the play, and by the time he clears him Shaw is now covered. Matić, who is incredibly patient and rarely rushes, simply turns, sees an opening, drives into the box, and plays a ball across to Daniel James (thanks to a tip from Bruno).
The third goal comes from Matić running down a set piece delivery that was hit too hard. Typically in this situation you’d see players just try to pump it right back into box. Not Matić. If it’s not on, why force it? Instead he stays patient, takes an extra touch, and eventually slides a pass to a wide open Rashford who quickly wins a penalty.
Matić’s positioning kept Maguire back and Bruno forward. Maguire only ended up taking four touches in the final third. Bruno only made four progressive passes. In fact, Bruno struggled to get involved much in this game to begin with. Newcastle man-marked him and kept him from getting touches in the middle of the pitch.
He only had 9.06 percent of United’s total touches, his third lowest total of the season behind only the two Arsenal matches. Yet he still finished with a goal and an assist because that’s just what Bruno does.
This game had a very 2019-20 feel to it because, well, this is exactly what United looked like when Bruno first showed up. Solid defensively (they held Newcastle to 10 shots with an xG of 0.5 — conceding on yet another set piece), didn’t create much, but (luckily) took their chances. It’s yet another warning flag about what this team could look like if Paul Pogba leaves this summer and isn’t replaced.
Last season against Watford with this same midfield pivot Solskjaer instructed his wide players to hug the touchline, giving Bruno tons of space to operate the in the middle of the pitch. Sunday it was the same thing, only this time Newcastle focused on denying Bruno the middle and ceding the wings. United’s wingers took advantage.
Over the course of the season Bruno is going to win you the majority of your games. But there are always going to be games here and there where he’s either not at his best or the opponents are able to shut him down. What separates good teams from average teams is if your role players step up during those games.
On Sunday, Nemanja Matić answered the call.