Nemanja Matic leads the Premier League with four assists, equalling his career best for a single season. But this is merely the most noticeable aspect of his re-emergence under Antonio Conte.
Chelsea’s switch to a 3-4-3 has not only revitalized the team but the individual players as well. Cesar Azpilicueta and Victor Moses have undergone the most dramatic tactical makeovers. Nemanja Matic’s shift may be more subtle, but is having a significant impact on his career and the Blues’ season.
Matic played on the left side of central midfield in Chelsea’s 4-1-4-1 early in the season. He was out of place and overshadowed by his teammates that surrounded him. N’Golo Kante harnessed the holding midfield spot. Oscar showed signs of becoming a strong two-way central midfielder. And Matic, well, he was there.
The switch to the 3-4-3 pushed the wing-backs and Eden Hazard well forward of Matic’s line. The Matic-Kante pairing enables one – or, as against Leicester City, both – of the midfielders to press up towards the top of the opponent’s box. This is where Kante and Matic held offensive possession against the Foxes. It is also where Kante and Matic created Eden Hazard’s goal against Manchester United.
In the 3-4-3, Matic receives 5 more passes per game and attempts 10 more passes per game on average than he did in the 4-1-4-1. He maintained his pass percentage across the two formations, averaging 88% completion.
Nemanja Matic receives more passes from N’Golo Kante than from any other player in the 3-4-3. During the 4-1-4-1, Matic received the most passes from Cesar Azpilicueta at left-back.
Interestingly, Matic’s distribution has been relatively stable across the entire season. Eden Hazard is Matic’s favorite target. After Hazard, Matic passes evenly to Kante, Azpilicueta and a Chelsea centre-back (first John Terry, more recently Gary Cahill).
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Matic’s increased activity on the ball reflects the higher importance of the midfield in the 3-4-3 to control the run of play. Like many other aspects of Antonio Conte’s formation, it plays to his players’ strengths. Matic excelled in 2014/15 when he was the pivot point on the pitch. Playing alongside Kante places Matic in exactly that role.
Kante’s harassment of the opposition, his instinct and timing for tackles and his bodily control make him the perfect dispossessor. Nemanaja Matic has some of these skills, but his size works against him as does his timing. In 2014/15, he was second on the team with 10 yellow cards.
Kante allows Matic to control the space and passing lanes. Matic can play off the ball while Kante goes about regaining possession. A square pass from Kante to Matic confirms Chelsea’s possession. Matic then pivots the side to an offensive posture, and finishes the move with a pass up to Hazard. The trio used a variation of this sequence to create Chelsea’s third goal against Manchester United.
Hazard has been Matic’s most consistent target throughout the season. In either formation, Matic looks for Hazard as his main offensive outlet. Hazard’s free role in the 3-4-3 will give him more opportunity to get on the end of a Matic pass. Similarly, Matic’s higher role with Kante in support will open more passing lanes to Diego Costa.
Matic’s four assists, while the most eye-catching statistics, may reveal the least about the formation shift. Two of the assists came from the 4-1-4-1, and two came off the 3-4-3. More importantly, two of the assists created Diego Costa goals and two created for Eden Hazard. Matic’s assists will garner headlines, but his midfield play will ultimately create the most wins for the Blues.
Nemanja Matic owes his second arrival at Chelsea to Jose Mourinho bringing him back from Benfica. Matic will owe the second act of his career to Antonio Conte.
All data from Stats Zone.