Possession, Position, Precision – The Matic Influence

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Updated: May 30, 2014

“Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and of making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple.”

Bill Shankly had made it sound terribly simple, while describing the game of football, but these days, it’s difficult to find a player who can do all of the above simultaneously! Exceedingly difficult, if what you are looking for is a central midfielder with these impeccable qualities.

Chelsea have been hard-pressed for quality in central midfield since the double-winning season under Carlo Ancelotti, during which Michael Essien suffered a massive knee injury and following which Michael Ballack was released.

The purchase of Ramires from Benfica, the pursuit of Luka Modric from Tottenham, the stop-gap arrangement with Raul Meireles over the last three seasons only pointed towards one direction – the club were in look out for an elite central midfielder, who will give and take passes, control the ball and make himself available to receive a pass. Terribly simple, or is it??

The fundamental problem which the likes of Villas-Boas, Di Matteo and even Ancelotti in his second season faced and failed to correct was the ineffective transition from defense to attack. Once an attack broke down or an opposition threat was minimized, the onus to put pressure on the opposition goal fizzled out more often than not, due to faulty execution.

When Jose Mourinho took charge last summer, it was imminent that he will bring in someone to control the game from the middle of the park. Marco van Ginkel, a relatively unknown but highly rated youngster, arrived from Vitesse. van Ginkel was brought in to gradually phase out Frank Lampard, who has been on a downhill curve ever since his lay-off after a hernia surgery back in 2010. Unfortunately for van Ginkel and the club, the Dutchman was hit by a season-ending cruciate ligament tear and Chelsea were back to a square one.

Cometh the hour! Cometh the Matić!

Nemanja Matić is the player most Chelsea fans used to remember in relation to the transfer of David Luiz, when he was swapped for the willy Brazilian. That was until he rose to prominence as a deep central midfielder under the guidance of Jorge Jesus at Benfica. During his first spell at Chelsea, Matić was way below the pecking order behind the stalwarts Lampard, Ballack, Essien and even the promising Mikel and McEachran. It did not raise too many eyebrows in January 2011 when he switched clubs. However, questions began to be asked once he went from strength to strength, making a name for himself as an athletic midfield player with a swift mind to read the game while Chelsea struggled to make an impression at the centre.

On 15 January 2014, Chelsea confirmed an agreement was reached with Benfica for the transfer of Matić, a deal believed to be worth £21m. Matić made his first start for the club at Etihad against Manchester City and was adjudged the Man of the Match, following a superb display. His partnership with David Luiz in the middle was pivotal to Jose Mourinho’s tactical gameplan which outsmarted the freely-scoring City team.

So what does Nemanja Matić bring to the team that sets him apart from the rest of the options at Chelsea?? Ramires’ off the ball movement and tackling, Lampard’s distribution rate and eye for finding open spaces to operate, Mikel’s ability to choke the opposition attack are the key attributes to their respective styles of play. Matić can do it all with effortless ease. At 6 ft 4 in, Matić is comfortable in air and owing to his athleticism, he recovers quickly, even when outplayed by an opposition player. Matić’s primary strength is his reading of the game, which in combination with his physique and technical ability makes him stand out as a capable midfield general.

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The above numbers show how effectual Matić has been to Chelsea’s cause. The team conceded just 6 times during the 14 games he started. While a lot of that has to do with the performance of the defenders behind him, his role in shielding them effectively is equally important. The fact that Manchester City and Arsenal registered 3 and 5 shots on target respectively, while Liverpool just shot 5 times from inside the box when Matić started, is an irrevocable testimony of his defensive contribution.

Ramires has played the most minutes for Chelsea this season, followed by Lampard.

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Yet, Matić is the one entrusted with most responsibilities since he arrived in January.

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Nemanja Matić was a distinct upgrade on all the options Chelsea had in deep midfield and the effect was observed first hand as Chelsea mounted a challenge for the Premier League title, comfortably dispatching the other teams at the top of the table. In spite of the squad’s shortcomings against the minnows of the league which ultimately derailed the challenge, Matić’s inclusion has been a breath of fresh air to the first team. Hopes of a central midfield as devastating as the trinity of Ballack-Essien-Lampard of the 2009/10 season has soared amongst the supporters.

Talking of 2009/10 season, Chelsea had absolutely destroyed their opposition, scoring a record 103 goals, 28% of which were scored and 37.5 % assisted by these three. Essien, before his injury, was one of the best enforcers in the world. Lampard’s nose for the goal has always been exceptional for a midfielder and Ballack complemented them perfectly, bossing about the game with his technical array. John Obi Mikel, then just 23 years old, was crucial as well raking up 21 appearances and over 1700 minutes. However, that particular season is memorable less for a specific team formation or playing strategy and more because of individual brilliance from the likes of Drogba, Malouda, Anelka and Lampard.

As the excellent Michael Cox of Zonal Marking had said in a post-season analytical piece, “He (Ancelotti) began the season with a diamond midfield – something rarely seen throughout Premiership history. The final third of the season saw Ancelotti playing various shapes – the diamond, the Christmas tree, and a 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 – and it often appeared he wasn’t quite sure of his best system.” In the penultimate game of the season against Liverpool, Chelsea had played a 4-2-3-1 with Ballack and Lampard deep, in what was one of the first demonstrations of the double pivot in a Chelsea side. Since then, most Chelsea managers have flirted with it, with varied levels of success, mostly because it brought out the best among the attacking midfielders Chelsea possessed.

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It must be noted Matić has played considerably lesser minutes than any of the players did in 2009/10. However, the trend shows given a full season, Matić won’t have any problems whatsoever to influence the game and produce an effect similar to/better than the past.

Over the last few seasons, Chelsea’s trepidations in the league were attributed to a dysfunctional pivot. Ramires lacked the technical ability & passing range, Meireles the consistency and Lampard the pace & tackling efficiency. Rafa Benitez deployed David Luiz in the middle, to take advantage of his ball-playing capacity and long range passing. One man, who is as good as Matić in intercepting the opposition threat, is John Obi Mikel. In spite of being a good reader of the game, Mikel is extremely slow on the ball and often accused of “sideways passing”, owing to the fact he looks to avoid loss of possession at all costs. His deliberation often results in loss of an attacking opportunity. Matić, on the contrary is a pure registá who looks to recycle the ball quickly and start an avenue of attack.

Midfielders tend to peak later in their careers and Matić being just 25, it is safe to say his best years are yet to come. Matić has already produced impactful displays in big matches this season and it is essential for the club to find the perfect partner for him – someone who will not just complement the big Serbian but also control the game with similar ascendancy.

Matić has played with different partners this season, but the team has looked most balanced with David Luiz tucked by his side, as against Manchester City and Arsenal. Matić and Luiz nullified the influences of Yaya Toure and Mikel Arteta, and instead helped Chelsea command the game, masterfully involving the attacking players available and allowing the likes of Hazard, Willian, Schúrrle to unlock their potentials.

There has been widespread speculations that once the transfer window opens, the club will look to further strengthen the midfield by bringing in another deep playmaker or box-to-box midfielder, thereby reducing the reliance on Lampard and Ramires. The media have already linked the Blues with deals regarding Pogba, Vidal and Paulinho. Tiago of Atlético is also rumored to be joining the Blues on a Bosman. Should Chelsea choose not to splurge on another central midfielder, Mourinho still has a totally viable partner for Matić in Marco van Ginkel! van Ginkel, rated as an exceptional midfield talent in the Dutch ranks, boasts of a wide assemblage of passing range and Chelsea will try to instil him in the first-team set-up. The key will still be Matić and Chelsea will look forward to exemplary displays from “The Beast”, if the club has to challenge for its fifth Premier League title next season.

2 Comments

  1. Oscar Puente

    June 18, 2014 at 2:10 PM

    Great write up! A quick note: You could consider using “per minute” or “minutes per” values to solve your difference in number of minutes played problem. Either one would do the trick.

    It’s great to see that the numbers back up what our eyes were seeing with Matić being a great pickup.

  2. Jess

    July 21, 2014 at 10:37 PM

    You should take part in a contest for one of the
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