The Matic Effect
Nemanja Matic, the 6’4” gentle giant, after loads of speculation, has at last left Chelsea to join Jose Mourinho at Manchester United for £40million. It was widely rumored that the Serbian will leave Chelsea as he won’t play second fiddle to Tiemoue Bakayoko, once the French moved to London from Monaco. Last season, the duo of Matic and Kante, formed the spine of the team which won EPL by a landslide. Antonio Conte opted for a 3-4-3 formation which many EPL purists believed will never work in EPL since 3 man backline has seldom worked in modern EPL. Conte formed the fulcrum of his midfield by pairing a tireless ball winner in Kante with a pretty all round modern hybrid defensive midfielder in Matic, thereby leaving the creative genius Cesc Fabregas on the bench. He then provided his fulcrum with a three man backline spearheaded by an outlet in Luiz and flanked his midfield with wing backs in Alonso and Moses. In front, Eden Hazard revived his form after a slack season and was aided by Costa and Pedro.
This season, Bakayoko joined Chelsea and later Matic joined Manchester United and the man who played a huge role in making Matic a superstar in the EPL. Jose Mourinho paired Matic with Cesc in his 2 man midfield in a 4-2-3-1 and flew to the EPL title. Bakayoko is 7 years younger than Matic and have cost more or less the same amount as Matic. So on first look, it looks a no brainer for Chelsea. However, when Conte was asked why Matic left, he cryptically replied to ask the club. It might suggest, Conte had Matic in his plans. May be he wanted to try a 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2 midfield also which he did in Juventus and a player like Matic is very handy in both these formations. More importantly, it should be noted that though both Bakayoko and Matic are primarily defensive midfielders, they have different styles and utilities which could have provided Conte with several vital options and tactical flexibility. In a season packed with matches of EPL, UCL, FA Cup and EFL cup, flexibility and options are a must, and Jose Mourinho is sure not complaining.
This season Jose Mourinho strengthened his attack, defense, and midfield and surely must be pretty happy with how things have gone so far. The addition of Matic provides him with options and flexibility in his midfield. Jose won UCL with Porto deploying a 4-4-2 diamond and 4-3-3 formations. He deployed 4-3-3 in his first stint at Chelsea. Then he deployed a 4-3-1-2 and 4-2-3-1 while winning the treble at Inter. At Real Madrid, 4-2-3-1 was his default formation as was during his second stint at Chelsea. During his first season at Manchester United, 4-2-3-1 was largely used, though he flirted with 4-3-3 and occasional 3-5-2. However, 4-2-3-1 has remained largely his go to formation in recent years. Jose typically does not opt for 3 man backline. Also even in a three man midfield, he generally flanks his pivot with a shuttler. He paired Makelele with Essien at Chelsea and at inter he flanked Cambiasso with Motta or Zanetti. Hence Jose always goes for extra cover in midfield, whether it’s a 3 man midfield in a 4-3-3 or a two man pairing in a 4-2-3-1.
Last season at Manchester United, Jose largely shuffled Herrera, Carrick,Pogba and Felliani in a 2 man midfield in a 4-2-3-1. Sometimes Pogba was also deployed as no 10, but largely Mata and Mkhitaryan has been deployed there. Jose Mourinho loves height and aerial ability in midfield. This provides him with an option in midfield where the midfielder can win aerial duels and launch quick counters. Also, if chances of winning aerial duel increases in midfield, it means the goalkeeper can go long instead of passing on the ground and playing out of back when high pressed by opponents. This was precisely the reason Fellaini was deployed so many times. He provided good aerial threats in attack as well as an extra man in defending set pieces. Also, Fellaini’s height means, he can easily trap long balls from his goal keeper thereby bypassing high press or to catch opposition teams off guard by trapping down a sudden long ball and launching quick counters. However, Fellaini’s lack of footballing vision and limited range of passing meant United could neither launch quick counters nor take advantage of winning aerial duel in midfield, simply because of Zlatan Ibrahimovic at 36 years of age, lacked the pace to latch on to a small pass from Fellaini and create counters on his own. During Mourinhos time at Inter, it was a common sight to see Cambiasso winning duels in midfield and causing turnovers thereby launching a quick counter via Sneijder/Zanetti/Motta. Diego Milito’s pace and finishing meant, more often than not, these two to three pass quick counters proved fatal.
This season Jose has Lukaku therefore speed or strength will not be a limiting factor. Passing option in midfield is there in Herrera and Pogba. Adding Matic means, Jose now has no need for Fellaini and can finally get rid of that lack of vision and passing ability. Matic, though not a Cesc Fabregas, has good passing range and vision. Also Matic possesses the engine to run up and down the pitch in a box to box fashion and cause problems to opposition teams. Both these factors were missing in Fellaini. Matic is not aerially as good as Fellaini( Avg. aerial duels won by Matic is 49% compared to 52% of Fellaini as per Squawka), but leads in all other departments like pass accuracy, avg pass length, chances created and assists. And his height gives him the advantage to win aerial duels in midfield as well as help out in set pieces in both defending and attacking. More importantly, he can be paired in a 2 man midfield with either Pogba , Herrera or Carrick and can also play in a 3 man midfield with either two of them. He can shield Carrick when employed as a pivot or holding midfielder in a 3 man midfield. He can play as a shuttler, as a box to box and also can be employed as a pivot as he did sometimes in his Benfica days, though Jose Mourinho has always shielded or flanked his pivots. His versatility as well as his winning experience being an integral part of EPL winning teams in a two man midfield in two entirely different systems with two entirely different partners under two entirely different managers means he provides Jose Mourinho with flexibility, tactical options as well as genuine quality. Be prepared to watch Matic regularly paired in a 2 man midfield in a 4-2-3-1 setup under Jose Mourinho at United.
By Arindam Chakraborty