Nemanja Matic gave an assured display as Manchester United dropped points at home against a lacklustre Watford on Saturday. The Red Devils dominated proceedings, and out-shot Watford by 22 to 10 (via whoscored.com). United also won the xG battle 2.9-0.5 but were let down by poor decision-making and finishing in front of goal. United remain 4th in spite of the draw but they can drop out of the top 4. 6th placed Arsenal have 3 games in hand and are just 2 points behind.
Ralf Rangnick’s men played well for most parts of the game. In particular, midfielder Nemanja Matic was an impressive performer. The Serbian was making his first start since the 2-2 draw to Aston Villa in mid-January.
United’s Shape Out Of Possession:
Manchester United looked to press Watford in a 4-2-2-2 shape. For large parts of the game, Matic and Fred were switching positions when needed.
Manchester United mostly looked to press the Hornets higher up the field. In such cases, Watford countered with a 4-2-3-1 set up. Sissoko and Louza often formed a double pivot, while Cleverley pushed higher up. The former Manchester United man would either occupy the left-wing position allowing King to function as a second center-forward, or play as an attacking midfielder.
Matic’s role in pressing Watford:
Manchester United’s 4-2-2-2 meant that Matic would act as the secondary line of pressure.
A narrow front-line forced the Forster to locate their full-backs directly.
This triggered the first press from the near-side winger, forcing a pass inwards to the interior. This pass would trigger the second line of pressure, allowing Matic and Fred to pressurize Watford’s makeshift double pivot.
Sissoko or Louza often received the ball with their backs to the goal. As a result, the third man between the lines was inaccessible to them. As per (whoscored.com) 7 of Matic’s 12 pressures in the game were attempted in the middle third of the field.
Fred was often caught higher up the field in possession. In such cases, Matic would have to cover the spaces left behind by the Brazilian.
Matic largely opted for a space-oriented approach to defence rather than marking players. The 33-year-old was vulnerable against Watford’s front-line. He won only 1 of the 3 tackles (via whoscored.com)he attempted against opposition dribbles during his stay.
Instead, Matic aimed to cut-off passing lanes and cover spaces. The Serbian tried to jockey onrushing forwards, creating more time for other United players to fall back.
In the middle of the field, Matic and Telles often executed interesting switches in the wider areas. When Ngakia or Sissoko received the ball on the wing, Matic could jump into out of position while Telles covered Sarr. This created a numerical superiority in the wide areas for the Red Devils. This also prevented Sarr from finding space behind the lines.
When Sarr himself dropped deeper to receive possession, Telles often tracked the movement of the Senegalese winger. In such cases, Nemanja Matic dropped into the auxiliary left-back role to prevent any runs down that flank by other Watford players.
Matic does not have the speed to fall back and defend as quickly as Wan-Bissaka, Fred or Telles. So, he would drop back relatively slower, looking to cover the late runs into the box by Cleverley, Sissoko or Dennis.
When Watford were settled in possession, Matic sat just ahead of his center-backs. This gave Watford forwards little space to receive the ball between the lines, forcing the Hornets wide to create chances.
Both Lindelof and Varane are aggressive center-backs. The duo often stepped out of their defensive lines to contest duels. In such cases Nemanja Matic would step into the defensive line to cover the space vacated. In fact, Watford attempted 97 lofted passes during the game. Matic contested only three aerial duels during his 74-minute stay.
United’s only complaint with Matic’s defensive games would have been in winning second balls. While pressing higher up or falling back, Matic was often too far from his center-backs to recover possession, or beaten for pace by a Watford player.
All in all, the Serbian put in a solid shift defensively, and looked comfortable defending space against a disjointed Watford front-line.
Defensive Stats of Nemanja Matic (via whoscored.com):
1/3 Tackles Won
1/2 Aerial Duels Won
2/12 Successful Pressures
1/3 Opposition Dribblers Tackled
Matic was crucial to Manchester United’s set-up on the ball. The Serbian often sat just in front of the defence when United did not have the ball. This helped Matic act as the first reference point as soon as possession was regained. He often directly received a pass from the center-backs to kickstart attacks.
Matic himself was not very involved when United looked to play on the counter. He instead arrived as the supporting player when the ball arrived in the opposition half.
“Support” is a word that describes the 33-year-old’s performance perfectly.
In the deeper areas, Matic’s positioning depended on how his full-backs were stationed. Watford played with a passive 4-5-1, so United’s center-backs were under minimal pressure throughout the game. If Telles or Wan-Bissaka pushed higher up, Matic remained deeper and closer to the ball. This served a two-fold function:
- Additional Passing Lanes: Instead of a 2v1 scenario, Matic remained just ahead of the center-backs or dropped in as a third center-back. This created 3v1 scenarios that made ball progression even easier for Manchester United.
- Defensive Security: Matic remaining deeper meant United were also less prone to counter-attacking situations in case they lost the ball.
Matic can take the ball forward only if there is cover:
If either one of the full-backs remained deeper, Matic would push a little higher up. If a marker tracked him, this would open up more space for Bruno or Fred to drop deeper and collect the ball.
In most cases, Watford decided not to track Matic. This provided the Red Devils with an easy outlet for ball progression. Matic could receive the ball in space, with time to turn and find forward passing options.
Matic himself did not commit higher up the field in the final third. He often dropped into the flank where the ball was to provide an additional passing option, and cover in case United lost possession.
The Serbian was however reluctant to push higher up or receive the ball in the wider areas by himself.
Different Role After Fred’s substitution:
In the 62nd minute, Rangnick took Fred off for Jadon Sancho. This meant Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba were used as interiors. This substitution forced Matic deeper and he was less involved in the opposition half.
Rangnick took Matic off 12 minutes later for Marcus Rashford in search of a late winner. Those two changes killed United’s effective momentum. The loss of a natural DM allowed the Hornets more space between the lines and they even created a few dangerous chances.
In the central areas, Watford created with a solid mid-block. Matic was United’s best progressive outlet in the game.
Matic was a safe option in possession. 25% of all his passes progressed in a forward direction. 65% of all carries by Matic were also towards the opposition goal. Add to that 11 passes into the final third and one key-pass.
Matic played a great game for United at Old Trafford. Everything flowed through the Serbian, and he was a crucial cog in United’s midfield. The quality of United’s attack dropped after his substitution. This was a fine indicator of just how important Nemanja Matic is to Rangnick and for United right now.
Passing & Progression Stats of Nemanja Matic, (via whoscored.com):
11 Progressive Passes
11 Passes into Final Third
1 Pass Into Box
4 Shot Creating Actions
17 Progressive Carries
4 Carries Into Final Third
25.64% Progressive Pass Distance
65.42% Progressive Carry Distance
What did you think of United’s performance against Watford? Who was United’s best player on the field? Let us know in the comments.