Tactical Analysis: Nemanja Matic Debut v Real Madrid

Nemanja Matic was not the first choice target for the Central Defensive Midfield signing this summer for many fans, myself included, given his age and the anticipated fears of lack of mobility and sharpness of passing. Nevertheless  if last night’s UEFA Super Cup showing was anything to go by against Real Madrid, arguably the best team in Europe, it shows he could certainly surprise some of the sceptical Old Trafford faithful.

Intercepting Excellence

There are not many quick defensive midfielders in world football nor are there many agile ‘destroyers’ around but there have been fears that an ageing Matic could be overrun by quick-footed and diminutive creative players. The Serbian certainly did not substantiate this particular concern as seen (below) in this segment of the match as his positional sense was outstanding, allowing him to anticipate the opposition’s attacking movement to perfection.


Here in this example, Matic closes down and dispossess Isco knowing Valencia has Marcelo marked and his other midfielders are tight to their markers. Whilst it is clear Matic’s legs are not lightening quick, he is markedly more nimble than Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick, the quickness of the mind seems to compensate to dispossess opponents.

In modern football, it seems the nimble-footed, workhorses in midfield in the ilk of N’Golo Kante and Idrissa Gueye are those most in-demand, however Matic’s old school reading of the game without that tireless engine was equally effective in intercepting in the centre. This second example, he read that the wide player was on the verge of cutting in and not only intercepted the ball, he fed it into Lukaku in a fluid action. That transition into attack eased the burden off our midfield architect Paul Pogba as the sole link between midfield and attack.

Tactical Awareness

Not only did our 6ft 4 Serbian intercept expertly in the centre, his tracking back to aid bombing full backs and centre-backs who were pulled apart positionally by mesmeric interchange from Los Blancos was crucial to minimise the damage and provided more defensive stability.

In this example, both Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia were attacking and left huge gaps in the defensive third and Real’s Karim Benzema was being marked by the two central defenders as Real were a threatening counter attack. Nemanja Matic sensed the danger and tracked the midfield runner all the way into our penalty box, surprisingly keeping up with the foot race, out-muscling the opponent with his upper body strength and stopping the counter.



In this second example, the centre-back pairing were pulled wide across the defensive line leaving Real’s flair players spaces to run into and exploit (much like the 2nd Real Madrid goal Isco scored). Another defensive positional error, another case of Matic saving the day as he tracked the run all the way to the byline and was touch-tight in the box making it impossible for the attacker to produce any end product.


If this performance is symbolic of his 2017-18 season at Manchester United, then the defenders may be breathing slightly easier with every defensive mistake and positioning flaws they may exhibit as they seem to have a crucial ally from midfield to bail them out and save their potential blushes. In addition to Victor Lindelof adapting to top-level European football and the left-back crisis, last season individual errors cost games with the giving away of clumsy penalties and poor positional play, the 1-1 results may well be transformed into tight victories with the help of Nemanja Matic’s awareness.

Variety of Passing

Usually Matic is synonymous for being a physical presence who is adept at using his power and frame to overpower midfield opponents, but something which surprised me and others in last night’s game was his passing between the lines. In recent years, Man United fans have been accustomed to safe, unadventurous sideways passing with our midfielders scared to lose the ball rather than being brave enough to make the risky pass and initiate an attack.

It was brilliant to see him display his a real variety of passing. For every short sideways pass there was switches of play, balls to the striker’s feet and through balls in front of the attacking trio and even outside-of-the-boot lofted balls to wide men.



Here first of all Matic had the opportunity to make two different sideways passes but opted for the most difficult option by threading the ball between two Real Madrid midfielders and setting Ander Herrera off in a superb wide position. This orchestration of attack is something which has been missing last season as Paul Pogba was the only source of any risky defence-splitting passes, thus would be perfect if Matic was to continue in this sort of vain.


Matic showed off his creative repertoire with an outside-the-boot ball to Jesse Lingard and bypassing the whole Real Madrid midfield and instigating another attack.


Fancy passes are not always necessary. A simple pass between midfield and attack to the feet of Lukaku allowed him to turn and have a shot on goal in the opposition box.


Fancy passes are not always necessary. A simple pass between midfield and attack to the feet of Lukaku allowed him to turn and have a shot on goal in the opposition box.


All in all, it was a very impressive showing on a competitive debut irrespective of his experience with Chelsea. Everything you would crave for a defensive midfielder to show was on display; the breaking up of play, the bailing out of defensive frailties and the incisive passing to instigate attacks from deep. United fans will be hoping for more of the same from our newest midfield recruit Nemanja Matic.

By Hesham Bilal-Hafiz 


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