Manchester United’s season goes on as the Red Devils secured a place in the last 16 of the Europa League after a 4-0 aggregate win over Real Sociedad.
After a thumping first leg win followed by a comfortable victory in the Premier League against Newcastle, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men kept another clean sheet against the Spanish side to earn a 0-0 draw in the second leg.
After Scott McTominay suffered an injury and was substituted after 60 minutes in the first leg, Nemanja Matic came in and has played every minute since. After a shaky start against the Magpies, it was actually his performance that turned the game around for United.
The entirety of the first half was played without control and patience in the midfield, with quality on the ball a real issue. United struggled to string three passes together and gaps were left that were wide enough for Newcastle to run through and create chances.
In the second half though, Matic took control. The 32-year-old slowed the game down to his pace, made Newcastle chase him and provided excellent cover for the defence.
During the Europa League second leg against Real Sociedad, the game was largely played without any major events. La Real missed a first half penalty after a clumsy challenge from Dan James, but other than that, Dean Henderson had nothing to do in goal.
Matic’s performance in the centre of the park was once again impressive, keeping Man Utd solid in the middle – he had a 93% pass success rate and his excellent positioning ensured United always had a base in tact.
It was a game that, despite the lack of real attacking intent from either side, Fred still managed to get booked, and was substituted at half-time to avoid a red card.
With Premier League games against Chelsea and Manchester City coming up over the next two weeks, United are in need of points to not only maintain some sort of title challenge, but to ensure there is a gap between themselves and the rest of the packing chasing a Champions League place.
That means they need reliability and quality in central midfield, which means Matic should start.
Solskjaer revealed that he is hopeful that McTominay will return for the trip to Stamford Bridge this weekend. If he is able to start, then the decision of who should start alongside him is between Matic and Fred – and it’s the turn of the former Premier League winner to get a decent run in the side.
While Fred’s energy is always helpful against big teams, his rashness in the tackle and headless-chicken pressing can often cause United issues.
Matic takes better care of the ball and is without a doubt the best defensive midfielder in the squad, so the fact he has only featured for 821 minutes in the Premier League this season is a mystery. United have previously been criticised for setting up to just not lose in games against teams around them, so the inclusion of Matic would help battle against that.
His defensive attributes are better than Fred’s and McTominay’s, while his ability to break the lines with dribbling and passing is also much better.
With Paul Pogba out injured, United’s central midfield options are down to three players – and Matic must get the nod.