Manchester United are having one of their worst seasons in recent memory. Lack of astute action in the transfer market, unsatisfactory results and the ownership situation with the Glazers have attracted a lot of negative press from the media.
The 0-2 loss to Burnley at Old Trafford sums up United's difficulties. To sum up, they are injury-struck in midfield. Paul Pogba was supposed to be back but his ankle troubles see no end. Scott McTominay also picked up an injury in a 4-1 win against Newcastle United on Boxing Day. Both are not expected to play before mid-March. Replacements for Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera have not been discovered. Academy graduate James Garner's stamina levels and lack of experience have kept him out of action.
Andreas Pereira played in the double pivot in the first 45 minutes against Manchester City in 1-3 defeat but looked sloppy. Timothy Fosu-Mensah is not living up to potential either. United are left with Brazilian Fred and Nemanja Matic to fill the gaping holes in midfield as Bruno Fernandes has just arrived and still finding his feet.
This season, Fred has been sensational for the Red Devils. Since his arrival in 2017, this is the best he has ever been. Earlier criticized for not performing well, the former Shakhtar Donetsk midfield has been the archetypal midfield general. Alongside him, Nemanja Matic seems to have had a renaissance too.
The Serb was bought by Jose Mourinho but fell down the pecking order because of his nature of slowing down the game, giving away the ball cheaply and a one-dimensional approac. Before his injury hiatus from October to mid-December, he was allocated less than 200 minutes across all competitions. It was rumored he'd leave Old Trafford. According to reports, United had rejected offers for the player from Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid.
Due to injuries, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer left with no choice but to play him regularly. And he has revitalized himself. His performances against Burnley, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Arsenal showed hints of promise.
While Fred operates as a box-to-box midfielder, Matic provides a defensive balance to the team. His ability to hold onto the ball, intercept and tackle, recycle possession, change flanks with a wide array of passing options and keep things simple add freshness to the centre of the park. His partnership with Juan Mata has yielded sweet results whenever the two have played together.
Against Colchester United in the EFL Cup in a 3-0 victory, the Matic's statistics were astronomically brilliant. He completed 99 passes with a 96% success rate, spraying balls all over the pitch and winning four tackles. A similar type of performance was seen against Norwich where the ex-Chelsea man had 84 touches, completed 63 passes and won nine defensive duels. He appeared as a dominant force in midfield.
In the image below you can see how Matic exploits free space by spraying through ball from his left foot. Against Burnley, his passes were quite important in the match. He attempted 13 passes to the final third and completed 11 of them.
He is a direct set-piece threat and marks his opposition with precision. Since returning to the squad, he averages 8 recoveries per 90. His slender build allows him to get a 360-degree view and allows him to check shoulders with ease. All in all, Matic's sudden rise was well-timed for United. However, Matic is 31 and he is past his best days. He is still not press resistant, tries to do too much and takes too much time on the ball.
This story demands attention but is short-lived. McTominay will be back in a couple of weeks and Matic will probably be benched again. United will surely reinforce their squad in the summer. However, his contribution shouldn't go unnoticed and he may still have a few tricks left in his bag for the club.