Manchester United’s 1-0 win over Manchester City wasn’t just a reminder of how good the Red Devils can be against the top sides. But it was a reflection of how they can keep more clean sheets with a properly functioning defensive midfielder. Nemanja Matic was in the thick of things on Wednesday, scoring and getting sent off.
It was one of his best performances in a long time. The Serbian has had some improvement in recent weeks, but the show at the Etihad topped it off. He was crucial in helping the side keep a rare clean sheet. He makes Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof look like better players than they do without him. But it was another reminder of how United can’t make do without him. Or rather, they can’t do much without a player like him.
With Matic’s current deal running out in the summer of 2020, the odds are on the former Chelsea man looks on his way sooner or later. In his absence or when his form was poor, a lot of criticism came in the way of Maguire and Lindelof. They were constantly exposed as United’s lack of a proper anchor-man kept letting them down.
It isn’t just Matic though, whose presence has been vital. United had Scott McTominay playing in defensive midfield before the Scotland man sustained a knee injury. He was the deepest midfielder, with Fred playing slightly further forward. This made United look much better physically. They had a towering presence right in front of the back.
When United went into a game without a known defensive midfield, Fred and Andreas Pereira had been playing a 3-4-3 shape against Sheffield United. And the Blades battered that midfield, outrunning both Andreas and Fred.
When McTominay was starting against Chelsea, United kept a clean sheet and won 4-0. It didn’t just shield the back-four, but also allowed Paul Pogba the freedom to get two assists.
United’s next clean sheet came in their 1-0 win over Leicester City. That game had seen both Matic and McTominay start. Together, they won five aerial duels and six tackles in total. Because of that, Maguire and Lindelof won six aerial duels themselves.
Matic was immense in United’s next clean sheet, which came away to Burnley. Matic won five aerial duels, winning one tackle. The Serbian completed two dribbles, as wasn’t dribbled past even once.
The next clean sheet had come at home to Norwich when United had won 4-0. Matic and Fred had started in a double pivot. The former Chelsea man was crucial- once again. Winning as many as four tackles- the second-highest in the game. He won 100 percent of his aerial duels, as Norwich failed to dribble past him even once.
That is just a reflection of how Matic has never let anyone down in the absence of McTominay. He has been inconsistent sometimes, but his mere presence just helps the backline immensely. They almost have an extra number, as Maguire’s ball-playing and carrying abilities see Matic drop into a central defensive position.
He adds physicality to the plate- something Jose Mourinho always liked him for. On his day, he can be a game-winner- as he was against City. The 31-year-old won two tackles, winning one aerial duel. He also completed three dribbles and was always trying hard to add some invention to an otherwise creativity-strapped United side.
The red card was a blot. But Matic wasn’t dribbled past even once. Doing that against Burnley and Norwich is different, but doing that against City is a big task. Matic did that and the whole team benefitted from that.
With Bruno Fernandes now arriving at the club, Matic will be crucial for the Portugal international too. Matic doing his job well will take some defensive burden off Bruno and he will be able to make an impact in the attacking positions. That, in itself, will help United a lot.
Once Matic leaves, United will have McTominay. But they will need to replace Matic as soon as possible. Without a player like him, they will not keep clean sheets and the defenders will take the blame that they will not deserve.