Nemanja Matic has been an ever present for Manchester United this season, but Jose Mourinho’s obsession with persisting with the Serb is bordering on unhealthy
Albert Einstein is broadly, albeit inaccurately so, credited with exclaiming “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” This explanation seems to fit well with Jose Mourinho’s insistence to play Nemanja Matic despite his extended run of poor form.
Matic has been one of the stalwarts of the English top-flight ever since he made his way back to Chelsea from Benfica in January 2014. Mourinho, who was in-charge of the Blues back then, identified Matic as the perfect player to mould his game plan around, and gave the Serb six months to get settled in at Stamford Bridge.
The plan surely worked admirably in his favour, with Matic playing a pivotal role as Chelsea cruised their way to lifting the Premier League title for the fourth time. Another top-flight triumph followed, this time without Mourinho’s guiding hand over the West Londoners before it was deemed that the Serb wasn’t fitting the squad anymore.
Giving Matic a way out of the Bridge, was unsurprisingly his former boss, who was now at Manchester United and needed a player like Matic to lay the foundations of a typical Jose Mourinho side. The move was an instant success, but second season syndrome seems to have affected the 30-year-old.
So, from one of the best defensive midfielders in the world for close to four years, Matic now looks a shell of his composed, astute self. However, despite his poor form, the experienced midfielder has been an ever present in the side, a decision which has reportedly been questioned by the Manchester United dressing room.
However, after every struggle of a performance, it is becoming increasingly clear that Matic must be given an enforced rest for a while. The Hard Tackle now explores the reasons why Mourinho seems to be hell bent on playing the Serbian midfield destroyer, and also a few that explain why he must be dropped.
Why Jose Mourinho Is Persisting With A Regressing Figure
If Jose Mourinho’s desperate cry for a top class centre-back in the summer proved anything, it was that the Manchester United manager still did not trust his backline, even after their best ever season in terms of defensive output since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. This is where Matic comes in.
In the rare games when the Serb was unavailable for the Red Devils last season, Mourinho cut a man who was eager for the game to end from the get-go, owing to screening for his defensive unit. Indeed, it was Matic’s responsibility to shield the backline, which he did with aplomb for large parts of the season.
But, cracks had begun appearing towards the end of last season, with Matic looking increasingly worn out after a long campaign. A World Cup campaign with Serbia followed, meaning the 30-year-old had little rest in the summer, despite one that was enforced by a surgery, which has only made things worse.
However, as Mourinho showed in his second stint at Chelsea, with Matic in particular, he tends to keep on persisting with certain out-of-form player to play him back to top levels. Thus far, his tactics do not seem to be reaping dividends. But, if Manchester United are to launch a charge for the top four, Mourinho would hope Matic returns to form soon enough.
No like-for-like replacement within the Manchester United squad?
Speaking of providing shield to a stuttering backline, the very reason that Mourinho bought Matic in the first place was that Manchester United were lacking an out-and-out defensive midfielder. Indeed, the manager still doesn’t have anyone from within his squad who could replace the Serb in every aspect.
While Ander Herrera has flourished as a holding midfielder, he tends to lose his composure at times, while his passing abilities aren’t exactly crisp either. Marouane Fellaini has also been experimented in the holding midfield role, but to little success.
The final roll of the dice came in the form of Andreas Pereira, who can flourish in a deeper role a la Michael Carrick. But, Mourinho has clearly seen something in training that has forced him to keep the Brazilian on the sidelines, forcing him to consider Matic as the only viable defensive midfielder.
A trusted sergeant for Mourinho
Another key factor keeping Matic in the side is the fact that Matic is one of the few remaining go-to men for Mourinho in the Manchester United squad, especially with Antonio Valencia falling out of favour with him.
Matic is one of the few players who have the experience of the big stage in a relatively young side. And, considering the fact that he sits right in the middle of the park, Mourinho knows he can trust the Serb to command the side to perform in the way he desires, on paper.
That renders Matic as one of the few men Mourinho trusts completely in his squad, a trusted sergeant if you like. But, one thing is everything going hunky dory on paper, and another is getting the required output from the player, which takes us to our next section,
Why Matic Must Be Dropped
Just not good enough anymore
It is true that the Manchester United defence has been leaky this season – the Red Devils have conceded seven fewer goals than they did in all of the 2017-18 Premier League campaign, with 25 games still left to go. But, a huge part of their poor defensive performances is Matic himself.
Far too often this season, opposition players have managed to overrun the Serbian maestro in midfield without breaking a sweat. The prime example of this (there can be many) is Manchester United’s UEFA Champions League tie against Juventus at Old Trafford last month.
Tasked with keeping Paulo Dybala quiet, Matic was nowhere to be seen, sending the Argentine on a joyride that was his stint on the pitch, even leaving him unmarked for the only goal of the game. And, this is not just an exception, but what has been the case for the last two months, if not the entire season.
Possessing no mobility or pace, Matic’s laborious efforts are evidently putting the backline under immense pressure in just about every game, meaning Manchester United are effectively playing with 10 men from minute one.
The pace of the game
Matic’s role on the pitch is not just to provide the shield to defence. Just like any competent defensive midfielder, the 30-year-old also has to dictate the tempo of the game, provide the control in the middle of the park and facilitate smooth transitions from defence to attack. But, he fails on this account as well.
These days, whenever he receives the ball in midfield, Matic tends to take a couple touches too many before finding the right pass, effectively nipping any budding counter-attack right in the bud. As a result, Manchester United’s forward play often appears to be one-paced and one dimensional.
A closer inspection would also show that the majority of the passes that Matic makes are either sideways or backwards, which has been the running theme all through the season. With the plays building up at such an excruciatingly slow pace, sides tend to settle into their defensive blocks and kill off the space for the front-men.
A direct result of this is the boring football that Manchester United have become all too synonymous with lately, and the forwards being bestowed with very few chances to make a mark on the game.
Possible options within the Manchester United squad
We talked about Mourinho considering Matic as the only viable defensive midfielder at his disposal. But, the manager is going wrong in that ideology, and how. While Herrera has proven himself to be a competent option in the position, we will focus on summer signing Fred, in particular.
The Brazilian midfielder has found game time coming at a premium for him this season. But, a closer inspection suggests he could do better than Matic. Not only is Fred averaging more defensive duels won per 90 minutes (6.8 to Matic’s 5.1), he is also faring better on tackles won (2.0 vs 1.5), interceptions (1.3 vs 0.8), fouls won (1.3 vs 0.6) and key passes (1.0 vs 0.5).
These numbers are considerably better than the current incumbent, which begs the question why exactly the summer signing is idling away his time on the bench, when he can potentially be an upgrade, especially considering he has also proven himself to transition play quite smartly.
Granted, he is not a natural defensive midfielder, but with a player like Herrera by his side, the two can share the defensive burden and take the load off Paul Pogba significantly, paving the way for a solid and dynamic midfield triumvirate, on paper.
All things considered, the pros of dropping Nemanja Matic heavily outweigh the cons. With Jose Mourinho under pressure to deliver the results or risk being sacked, the manager could be better served trying something different than continuing with his “insane” pattern.
As things stand, the 30-year-old isn’t getting any better despite the game time afforded to him. Who knows, a change in the midfield combination might just inspire a turnaround in fortunes and set Manchester United on the road to getting back into the top four.