After overseeing a worst-ever start to a Premier League season at Manchester United, in which the 20-time champions lay sixth after 17 games, 19 points off top and owning a goal difference of zero, José Mourinho could have had few complaints at being relieved of his duties.
Yet still the Portuguese retains a great number of loyalists within the media and the club’s fanbase. Instead, many have chosen to lay the bulk of the blame for United’s downturn this season at the players’ doors.
Of course, the highly paid stars of Old Trafford must take responsibility for their personal underperformance. But it seems the detractors of the United playing staff – with Paul Pogba the focus of most ire – view the team’s recent vibrant displays under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær as evidence of how these unscrupulous individuals have simply decided to turn the style back on after “downing tools” to get Mourinho the boot.
If that were the case, though, then what of the performances of Nemanja Matić over the last three games? Mourinho had no more loyal lieutenant than the Serbian, who’d won a title under the former Porto and Real Madrid boss at Chelsea.
Despite calls from large sections of the support for Matić to be dropped, or at least given a rest, amid a sustained run of poor individual form over the last nine months or more, Mourinho refused to bench the 30-year-old midfielder, while others were ousted much more quickly.
Indeed, when asked what had changed to spark the side’s uptick after he scored in United’s 3-1 win over Huddersfield Town on Boxing Day, Matić replied: “I know you want me to say …” refusing to be led into criticising the departed boss.
In three games under Solskjær – against Cardiff City, Huddersfield and Bournemouth – United have scored 12 goals and conceded three. In those games, Pogba has scored four and registered three assists, bettering his tally of three goals and three assists for the season up to that point.
In these three games, Pogba is United’s highest performer when it comes to goals, assists, big chances created (three), accurate passes (249), touches (341), shots (13) and possession won (28). The Frenchman’s performances, though, have served only to antagonise many, who perceive the 25-year-old to have begun “trying” again after holding back under Mourinho.
But Matić, who is exempt from such accusations of unprofessionalism, owing to his obvious commitment to Mourinho, has improved equally as starkly under Solskjær.
In recent months the former Chelsea man had appeared immobile when attempting to track runners and protect the backline, ponderous in possession and risk-averse, passing sideways or backwards to protect the ball rather than taking a chance to release an attacker.
Now, he looks a player rejuvenated, quickening his speed of pass and movement, appearing sharper and undeniably more incisive. The stats bear this out, too. In the three games under Solskjær, Matić is making 70.44 accurate passes per 90, up from 57.51 for the season before that point.
He is also making more open-play key passes (0.67 from 0.58), more tackles (2.35 from 1.75) and, crucially, more forward passes (22.58 from 17.78), pointing to a more proactive style.
Matić’s ponderous approach in possession has been the biggest criticism of his game. His initial arrival at Old Trafford in August 2017 was followed by half a season of fine form, but he soon came to slow United down on the ball, taking three or four touches when one would have sufficed, before invariably passing sideways or backwards.
This is illustrated by the above Passing Sonar graphic, which shows the direction of his distribution for 2018/19 up until Mourinho was sacked after the 3-1 defeat to Liverpool on December 16.
Now we see his Passing Sonar for the three following games. It is evident that Matić is now looking forward much more regularly with his passes than previously.
The major caveat here, though, is that the level of opposition United have faced since Solskjær took charge is not representative of the league as a whole, facing a newly promoted team, a relegation candidate and a Bournemouth side in desperate form. And three games is far too small a sample size from which to draw any solid conclusions.
Instead, in this instance, the old-fashioned eye test is much more reliable. The stats alone paint a generous picture of a revitalised United side with a bright immediate future post-Mourinho. But by watching the matches and analysing their displays, taking into account of the opposition they have faced, it is possible to contextualise their improvements and temper expectations.
Still, though, Matić has stood out. Where before he appeared immobile when tracking runners and covering space in front of the back four, and his passing looked pedestrian and unambitious, he is now quicker of thought and foot, a pivot from which United’s eye-catching attacking moves spring.
Michael Carrick – the man Matić was signed to replace at the base of the United midfield – was a safe pair of hands in possession throughout his illustrious career, but he was renowned and revered for his first thought when receiving the ball always being to seek a team-mate higher up the pitch – Matić is now replicating this approach.
It may well be the case that he was always capable of playing this way under Mourinho, but was either instructed to play safe or hampered by tactics.
Solskjær hasn’t tried to reinvent the wheel on the training fields at Carrington, but has instead implemented a few simple, attack-minded tactical tweaks which have had a significant effect.
Namely, the full-backs now push higher up the pitch in possession, and the front three are afforded the freedom to roam and interchange positions. Pogba is the most obvious beneficiary, with more runners to target with through-balls, but Matić, too, has been unleashed.
While it is surely true that some players are now relishing the prospect of playing more than they had been, it is an unfair oversimplification to suggest they decided to stop performing for Mourinho and have now elected to flip the style switch back on.
As Matić is proving, United’s return to form is a case of tactical restrictions – as much as the dark cloud Mourinho had begun to cast – being lifted.