Nemanja Matić: the player behind Chelsea’s form?

Chelsea’s £21 million January signing Nemanja Matić has been an instant hit at Stamford Bridge.

Nemanja Matic

Since the Serbian midfielder received the Sky Sports man of the match award from commentator Gary Neville on his full debut in Chelsea’s 1-0 win at Manchester City on Monday 3 February the Blues have gone from strength to strength and now lead the Premier League by 7 points.

Nemanja Matić has enjoyed win after win to start his Chelsea career. However, this is nothing new for the 6’4” 25-year old centre midfielder.

Matić came from a winning mentality at Benfica – with 11 of his 14 Portuguese Primeira Liga games this season to be precise.

It helps playing for successful teams – Benfica are currently top in Portugal and Chelsea top in England.

However, the Eagles weren’t the pre-season favourites having dramatically lost the title on the penultimate game of the season to FC Porto last term. Chelsea came third in the Premier League last season and Manchester City’ until recently had been the favourites for many weeks.

In José Mourinho’s mind, Manchester City are still the favourites.

Historically in the Premier League, the winning team has had a world class holding midfielder.

For many years Manchester United had Roy Keane. The controversial Irishman won the league title 7 times in 12 seasons with the Red Devils. Notably Manchester United did not win the league in 1997-98 when Roy Keane spent the majority of the season sidelined. Coincidence?

Last season when Sir Alex Ferguson’s side won the league Michael Carrick received a lot of praise. He was one of the five contenders for PFA Player of the Season too. I’m not for one moment suggesting he’s world class, but instead highlighting the important role their holding midfielder took.

Arsenal during their glory years? A one Patrick Vieira was a formidable part during three successful title-winning seasons. In fact, Arsène Wenger and Arsenal have never won the Premier League without Patrick Vieira.

The Gunners finished 3rd during Vieira’s first season at Highbury and for the next eight years that the 1998 World Cup winner remained in London, Arsenal would finish top two every season. Following Vieira’s departure in 2005, Arsenal have not finished in the top two in the first eight seasons without him. Coincidence? Perhaps.

Arsenal have never replaced Patrick Vieira. Alex Song was never the imposing force that Vieira was and the Cameroonian got caught out of position too many times. Mikel Arteta certainly doesn’t come close to the former Arsenal number #4.

Remember who received a lot of the praise when Manchester City won the Premier League in 2011-12? Yaya Touré. Starting the season as a defensive-minded midfielder, it was actually when Roberto Mancini pushed the Ivorian into a more attack-minded role that he produced the results. But his presence in the centre of City’s midfield remains huge.

Liverpool’s weakness this season and part of the reason why I have never considered them Premier League title contenders this season, despite topping the league at one point and remaining within a few points of the leaders heading into the final 10 games, is their defence.

Lucas is almost ready to return to first team action. He’s a good holding midfielder and one I think will improve the leakage in the defence that has seen Brendan Rodgers’ side concede 12 goals in their last 8 Premier League matches.

There have only been two teams in the title race from the start of the season. One is Chelsea and the other Manchester City.

Manchester City have an impressive Fernandinho in a holding midfield role. The Brazilian international was absent during City’s defeat to Chelsea at the beginning of February. Coincidentally he was absent when they went 2-0 down to Watford in the FA Cup.

City fans who go to the Etihad every week will tell you how vital a factor Fernandinho is in their first team. Coincidentally, City have failed to win any of the four games in which Fernandinho has missed this season (they have won 18 of their 21 Premier League games in which he has played). Admittedly they only conceded 2 goals during his absence – but did you expect them to concede many goals versus Stoke City, Norwich City and Sunderland?

Fernandinho’s presence and reliability allows Yaya Touré to push forward. When Javi Garcia or Martín Demichelis play the holding midfield role it is not quite the same.

And Chelsea? José Mourinho goes with the modern 4-2-3-1 formation which accommodates two holding midfielders. This formation proved successful for the European sides at the 2010 World Cup – with the top 3 nations; Spain, Netherlands and Germany all using this formation.

The Blues have had Ramires, David Luiz, John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard playing that role, before signing Nemanja Matić in January. And no one has been as good in that position as Matić this season.

Here’s a look at Chelsea’s results this season and the number of shots they’ve allowed opposition:

Chelsea results and holding midfielder statistics

There are of course a lot of variables. This is José Mourinho’s first season back at Stamford Bridge so arguably it took time to organise his defence. Chelsea have been notably stronger in the second half of this season than the first for example.

Performances on the day. For example, the Blues were simply woeful in their trip to Newcastle back in November, whereas they were tactically immaculate in their 1-0 win at Manchester City in February.

The average shots allowed per game is higher with Nemanja Matić than without simply because of the season-high 24 shots Chelsea faced against Manchester City on his debut. Take out this one irregular figure and the average is lower with Matić than without.

Of those 24 shots, Manchester City only Petr Čech 3 times. And shots on target is the most important thing here. It’s a positive thing if your opponents are shooting into row z from 30 yards. It’s the shots on target that count and these have fallen since Nemanja Matić broke into the first team.

Chelsea were averaging 3.04 shots at Čech in their 23 games before Matić made his debut. Since the former Benfica player has been playing the Blues are now only allowing 2.83 shots on target per game. The different doesn’t look significant, but the original average is pushed down by the number of poor opposition Chelsea had faced earlier in the season – Fulham, Southampton, Swansea City and West Ham (twice) all managing just a single shot on target.

In terms of goals conceded – Nemanja Matić Chelsea have only conceded two goals when the Serbian has on the pitch in his six starts.  Clean sheets have been kept against top half sides Manchester City, Newcastle United, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur, but the goals did come against West Brom (a late equaliser) and Fulham (a consolation).

The Blues keep a clean sheet on average 2 every 3 games the Serbian plays, which is actually matched by John Obi Mikel.  Daivd Luiz only seems to play holding midfield against the top teams and Hull City, whilst Chelsea failed to keep a clean sheet in the two games Michael Essien started in before the Ghanaian was shipped off to AC Milan in January.

Chelsea's defensive record

Televised games against Manchester City (1-0), Everton (1-0) and Tottenham (4-0) recently have allowed us to see half of Matić’s Premier League starts. Interestingly, Chelsea have conceded a goal in two of his other three league games.

Statistics back up our thoughts – Matić averages the most interceptions per game (2.5) in the team and the most tackles (3.8). He also blocks the odd shot (0.4 per game) as shown in the tables below:

Chelsea interceptions per game
Nemanja Matić is in a league of his own when it comes to picking off a pass by an opponent in a Chelsea shirt.  Only David Luiz who has played both centre-back and holding midfield this season, and left-back César Azpilicueta average within half of the amount of interceptions Matić has picked off this season.

Chelsea tackles per game
When it comes to tackling an opponent, Nemanja Matić clearly likes to get stuck in.  More often than Ramires too. High-flying left-back César Azpilicueta comes close to matching the holding midfielder.

Chelsea shots blocked per game

Centre-backs as expected lead the team in opponents shots blocked per game, but Matić is playing his part.

Overall, when it comes to stopping the opposition attacks and winning the ball back for your team, Chelsea’s finest player is Nemanja Matić.

Chelsea remain my pick to win the Premier League title this season but will they miss the ineligible Nemanja Matić in the Champions League?

Statistics gathered from Opta Sports