After Nemanja Matic completed his £40 million move to Manchester United from Chelsea, Jose Mourinho declared him a “Manchester United player,” a “Mourinho player,” and one perceived as the final piece to his midfield puzzle.
The 29-year-old completes a midfield trio incorporating Ander Herrera, the all-action industrious central midfielder, and Frenchman Paul Pogba, the creative influence and goal-scorer from deep.
It was one in, one out at Chelsea, meanwhile, as Matic was sold to make way for Tiemoue Bakayoko, a £40 million acquisition from Ligue 1 champions Monaco. He joins compatriot N’Golo Kante in the heart of the Blues’ midfield.
For the sake of argument, let’s say Antonio Conte opts for his favoured 3-5-2 formation, the one synonymous with his time at Juventus and the Italian national team. Between Bakayoko and Kante, therefore, you’ll find the diminutive Cesc Fabregas, deployed to add creative spark and pull the strings.
Both triumvirates are enviable, but who has the better midfield? ‘Tis the question.
The dynamics of Chelsea’s midfield
The key to Conte’s 3-5-2, should he deploy the system, is that it gets Fabregas involved and on the ball as much as possible.
As seen in the diagram above, of a 3-5-2 when in possession of the ball, the wingbacks will push up to join the attack and the outer-most centre-backs consequently widen to cover the spaces deserted by the marauding wingbacks.
Bakayoko and Kante will drop deep to cover these gaps, which provides a solid defensive base for Fabregas to do what Fabregas does best. Influence the game. He has no defensive responsibility, can roam where he pleases and attempt riskier passes. Last season the Spaniard created 61 chances, the second-most of all Chelsea players, and assisted 11 goals, despite spending the majority of the season on the bench.
How Manchester United’s midfield works
Like Bakayoko and Kante for Chelsea, Mourinho has signed Matic to partner Herrera as the defensively inclined midfielders, pertaining to Paul Pogba’s licence to roam further up the pitch without compromising defensive solidity.
As the diagram depicts, Matic sits at the base of a midfield three and drops into the defensive line, almost as a third centre-back. Herrera is as tenacious as ever in the centre of midfield and busies himself breaking up opposition play.
Essentially, this creates two lines of defence, which provides Pogba a solid enough base to find ways of impacting the game creatively. No defence for the Frenchman, just attack. Both Matic and Herrera will look to get the ball to him at all times after winning it back.
As you can see, therefore, both midfield trios operate in different ways, though to the same effect. But, who’s is better?
Defensive duel: Matic/Herrera vs Bakayoko/Kante
The attacking is left up to Fabregas and Pogba, so for the purposes of this piece let’s look at the defensive qualities of the four defensive midfielders.
In truth, that you always want Kante in your midfield. The diminutive Frenchman made the most tackles of the four (82) and the second-most interceptions (83), and the fewest defensive errors (1). Kante is tenacious, hard-working and frankly just everywhere, seemingly impossible to escape.
|Nemanja Matic||Ander Herrera||Tiemoue Bakayoko||N’Golo Kante|
The same, though, can be said for Herrera. He’s United’s own N’Golo Kante, such is his work rate and important to the overall functioning of the side.
The Spaniard made the most clearances (62) and the most interceptions (86), as well as winning 64 tackles. Perhaps the best example of how crucial Herrera can be is how he man-marked Eden Hazard completely out of the game in the Red Devils’ 2-0 win over the champions in April.
When it comes to Bakayoko or Matic, it’s fair to say Bakayoko is the one you want according to statistics. He made more clearances (54) than Matic (49), won more tackles (56) than his the man he replaced at Stamford Bridge and completed more take-ons (54), an important means of steering clear of danger.
Matic’s new role
It’s worth noting, though, that Matic’s defensive numbers are down due to the more offensive role he adopted last season as Kante picked up most of the protective slack. They’re slightly skewed, therefore, as Matic wasn’t a pure defensive midfielder as others were. It does demonstrate another string to the Serb’s bow, however.
However, statistics don’t tell the whole story. Matic, in truth, was in poor form last season and that prior (2015/16) compared to his form in Mourinho’s third Premier League title win in 2014/15. Kante, meanwhile, was unstoppable and Bakayoko formed part of a dominant Monaco midfield that stormed to the Ligue 1 title.
Due to the way Kante can make up for his partner’s mistakes, in a way that Herrera can’t, a Kante-Bakayoko partnership wins this round.
Round One Winners: Bakayoko-Kante
Clash of creators: Pogba vs Fabregas
The Matic-Herrera and Bakayoko-Kante duos, as established, will provide the defensive platform on which Pogba and Fabregas, respectively, can influence the game.
A comparison of statistics highlights that Pogba bested Fabregas in nearly every category. He played more key passes (53) than the Spaniard (50), played nearly double the amount of passes as Fabregas and had more shots (91) and completed nearly seven times as many take-ons (75).
|Paul Pogba||Cesc Fabregas|
However, this excludes the categories that actually matter. Fabregas assisted 11 goals, compared to Pogba’s four, and scored as many goals as the Frenchman (5), despite attempting just 26 shots.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that Pogba played nearly double the minutes his Chelsea counterpart managed, who was typically confined to the bench. Fabregas was far more productive with the ball than Pogba was.
Styles of play
The two players, though, are different in style. Fabregas controls the game, dictates tempo and pulls the strings. Pogba, conversely, does not.
He’s similar to Dele Alli in style; he might ghost through the game on occasion, but he will arrive at the clutch moment and execute something special. Pogba has the ‘wow factor’ that I think Fabregas lacks.
One of the issues with his performances last season, too, was the fact that Mourinho was asking too much of him.
Pogba was needed to defend and played with too much discipline, which essentially acted as a leash on his attacking influence. With Matic and Herrera in support, he’ll be let off the leash, free to run wild and do what he does best. Expect far bigger things from the world’s most expensive footballer.
Round Two Winner: Paul Pogba
RealSport verdict: Manchester United
With Bakayoko-Kante besting Herrera-Matic and Pogba beating Fabregas, we have reached an impasse in our analysis. What it comes down to, for me, is how the respective trios will function together, the fluidity and coherency they can find in their performances.
For me, this is where Manchester United outdo Chelsea. The Blues’ midfielders have particularly defined roles and they’re not expected to perform duties outside of this, which means the creative burden will fall solely on Fabregas. There isn’t much fluidity between the trio, a factor that will hinder their performances.
Whilst the same can be said for Mourinho’s midfielders in terms of their discipline, the traits of each player allows for greater coherency.
Both Matic and Herrera are capable offensively, registering 13 assists between them, whereas Bakayoko and Kante are strictly defensive, assisting one goal each. Similarly, Pogba can defend, contrary to what his critics may say, whilst Fabregas can’t. It was the reason Conte didn’t trust him in a four-man midfield last season.
This is the key; coherency. Chelsea might just edge the battle individually, but Mourinho’s midfield maestros are the better functioning unit. In the grand scheme of the game, this is always far more important.
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