For a decade, Michael Carrick has been the most commonly seen face at the base of Man United’s midfield. His approach to the defensive midfield role was one of subtlety; not one littered with a barrage of tackles, interceptions, fouls, and cards, but of playmaking from deep, distribution, and visualisation of the game which negated much of the need for all that man to man combat. As a tactic, it has served United well, especially in a Premier League that values passers (mainly continentals) who still make waves for being different from the norm of big, strong, fast, and powerful with lots of desire.

The arrival of Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford was always going to mean changes in playing style despite any contrary proclamations. Anyone with any grasp of reality would expect such. Therefore, the heavy links to powerful Nemanja Matić should be par for the course.

Matić is an underrated bulldozer type who can get past players using a combination of power and underrated guile. It’s nothing spectacular looking, but it was effective in the two-man midfield with Kanté at Chelsea.

Philosophically logical

Both Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho, at heart, seek to set their teams up in a way as to prevent defeat first and then win games. This is not to say they don’t win. Both have done so more than almost everybody else at the peaks of the careers and have done so with a similar philosophy. It makes perfect sense for Mourinho to be interested in a past player that would essentially bring something different to the role than a Carrick-type player.

Statistic Herrera 16/17Kante 16/17Matic 15/16Matic 16/17Fellaini 16/17Carrick 16/17
Tackles Won2.332.352.341.242.211.01
Tackles Lost4.383.382.942.073.981.68
B90M Tackle score (unadjusted for possession)1.241.641.860.741.220.61
Interceptions3.142.382.491.841.62.52
Fouls1.711.521.411.12.270.28
Clearances2.261.292.041.643.042.07
Blocks0.260.110.370.270.280.45
Goals0.040.030.070.030.06n/a
Assists0.220.030.070.23n/an/a
Chances created1.350.630.710.91.00.67
Dribbles1.091.091.411.040.830.39
Dribble %76.927671.765.9665.22100
  • Herrera was actually the most defensively involved in the traditional sense. He attempted the most tackles of all those sampled. He also commited the most fouls and picked up his fair share of cards.
  • His interceptions lead the pack. Again, most tasked with this job especially when paired alongside the immobile and lanky Foullaini Fellaini.
  • Ander does still possess the ability to create at a decent level even with this responsibility.
  • Matic clearly had less need to tackle, intercept, foul, and get involved in a one-on-one with opponents with a Kante mopping up everything. His ability to dribble, create, and make driving runs is evident.
  • Carrick’s approach to the role is everything that the Herrera, Kante, and Matic approach is not.

If Matić does become the new defensive midfielder in name for United, then it presents some interesting dynamics and possibilities for the midfield. Two possibilities exist and there may be some tinkering with both before the solution reaches consensus. United may begin with the three-man midfield that was preferred towards the end of the season with Paul Pogba afforded far more freedom than he would in the midfield two, especially in big matches when he and Ander Herrera were ripe for the picking. Nobody would immediately point to Herrera as a defensive midfielder, but in function he isn’t much different from N’Golo Kanté. Both possess incredible ball-winning abilities and Herrera could be used as the deepest of the three if Mourinho had the imagination to do such. The assumption is that Herrera would occupy the right-sided midfield role he first did under Louis van Gaal at United and do his damage from there. His role then was more of a lurking presence who could emerge from deep positions to contribute on the attacking side with crucial goals. With Pogba in the mix, it is ideally suited for the Frenchman that both players are more withdrawn and this essentially scuppers that side of Herrera. That would mean he’s more apt to play the Kanté-style locomotive role from the right side.

Why not Ander as the defensive midfielder?

The line between roles and positions is very easy to blur. Wide forwards such as Cristiano Ronaldo can essentially play as strikers or a central midfielder such as Dele Alli can function as a supporting striker in an attack-dominant Premier League team like Tottenham. Ander functioned as a defensive midfielder last season. Make no mistake about that. He did so to accommodate the runs of Pogba, the ball distribution and limited mobility of Carrick, and the roaming nuisance that was Marouane Fellaini. His ball winning was the most consistent feature of United’s generally lax pressing style.

Herrera is a technically gifted and tactically aware player worthy of the captain’s armband.

Why not then have him function as the designated defensive midfielder? In that role, United benefits from his ball distribution which compliments the even deeper distributive talents of new signing, Victor Lindelöf. Matić is an underrated bulldozer type who can get past players using a combination of power and underrated guile. It’s nothing spectacular looking, but it was effective in the two-man midfield with Kanté at Chelsea. In fact, Matić was often the one to look to make forward runs in that partnership with Kanté playing more withdrawn for the most part because of his ability to win balls in deeper positions and then restart attacks at breakneck speed.  It’s something Mourinho may consider and something that most would not expect.

Flexibility

Having Ander as the functional defensive midfielder is more nuanced than having him being an Idrissa Gueye or Claude Makélélé who is mostly there to win the ball. Herrera is a technically gifted and tactically aware player worthy of the captain’s armband.

In a functional defensive midfielder role, he rotates primary defensive responsibility with Matić who would perform the holding duties that allowed Ander to distribute and make the occasional sneaky bursting run forward. The experience of both men combined with the ball winning prowess of the Spaniard may very well be suited to having the Spaniard using the element of surprise more often just as the threat of a bustling Matić would be such. If Matić does in fact become a reality a United, the Portuguese Mourinho might pick Conte’s brain and try to replicate the formula with an extra pseudo attacking midfielder in Pogba, a Kanté level ball winner in Herrera, and Matić himself as the defensive midfielder who uses unorthodox but effective skills to contribute in attack.

There’s one thing that certain. A potential Matić move to United isn’t a move that provides only an automatic Carrick solution and players like himself, Herrera, Kante, and Tiemoué Bakayoko in flexible roles may become the new standard for Mourinho and Conte managed United and Chelsea teams.

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