Who should replace Nemanja Matic at Manchester United?

After Jose Mourinho's first season as manager of Manchester United, he had a big chance to splash some of the Glazer family's cash. First he paid Benfica €35m for Victor Lindelof. Next he shelled out a reported £75m to prise Romelu Lukaku away from Everton. And then he paid Chelsea around £40m for a veteran DM who would turn 30 the day after he signed: Nemanja Matic.

Matic is 32 now and still playing regularly. Here are his stats from the past few seasons:

Matic is still colossal in all the duels we track, but last season his defending was fairly average. His ball retention had also slipped a bit from its previously excellent levels. A slightly less aggressive defending style does seem to have corresponded to higher quality in his defending actions, conceding less territory and moves leading to shots. But despite the underlying skills, Matic isn't quite as outstanding as he used to be.

That said, he's still critical to the Red Devils' attack, having consistently been involved in half their moves leading to goals:

That's a pretty high figure for a DM, and it comes in part from the fact that Matic covers a wide swath of the pitch when he plays, especially in the left channel leading toward touches for Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial:

Because of Matic's crucial role, it's well past time for Manchester United to figure out who will step into his shoes. The obvious answer is Scott McTominay, the 23-year-old DM whose performances have steadily improved. His style of play has increasingly mimicked Matic's, too, with less adventure going forward and more focus on linking up the play and defensive duties. Here's how the evolution has looked over the past three seasons:

McTominay is also a naturally skillful player, strong in duels, but his ball retention could stand to improve. Of course, he still has several years to develop before he'd be expected to peak as a DM. So is there someone else who could step in to bridge the gap between him and Matic?

Matic is the rare player who can link up the play, take the ball forward himself with relative security, and provide some steel out of possession. We used our Search by metrics to see if we could find other players whose actions and overall ratings were at least as good as his:

Among the top names in the search results was a familiar one: Emre Can, formerly of Liverpool, now at Borussia Dortmund and still only 26 years old. Another name was less familiar but no less worthy of notice: Santi Comesana, relegated from La Liga in 2018-19 with Rayo Vallecano, but at 23 years old still a player with a bright future. Here's how they compare to the Serbian star:

Both Can and Comesana are more active in attack than Matic, but they have suitable passing styles and get a lot done on the other side of the ball as well. Comesana is also an outstanding tackler, while Can has the better all-around skill in duels.

A couple of smarterscout young prospects also appeared as contenders, in case Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants head-to-head competition for McTominay. Again, one is much better known than the other:

We featured Cheick Doucoure in our in-depth look at Lens and its constellation of young stars. Aiden O'Neill may seem like an unusual pick, given that the 22-year-old is currently in Australia's A-League, quite some ways off the level of the Premier League. But he was a youth player at Burnley and was snapped up in September by Melbourne City, part of the City Football Group empire. As Aaron Mooy showed, starting off in the A-League is no bar to a talented player making it at the highest level. Bringing O'Neill over from the sky blue side of global football might be a tougher ask, though.

To see if we could locate another possible signing with a different approach, we tried our smartersearch. In this format, we pick the attributes we think are most important, and our system creates a formula to rank players from around the world. We also specified that they looked capable of performing in the Premier League, using the Hot badge:

Once we filtered the search results for minutes played and age, setting a maximum of 26 years old, Comesana and Doucoure were two of the top matches. The third was an exciting player from Gremio in Brazil: Matheus Henrique. Like Doucoure, he appeared twice on the list:

Matheus Henrique is just 22 years old but has put up extremely consistent numbers in the Brasilerao for three seasons:

He's great in ground duels at a Premier League standard, though he wouldn't offer anywhere near as much as Matic in the air. He's played rather more centrally for Gremio, but he does have a tendency toward the left channel like Matic:

Could Manchester United benefit from an all-Brazilian double pivot with Fred and Matheus Henrique for the next several years? It might be a little more dynamic – dare we say sexier – than what Solskjaer has in mind. Can would seem to be the safer choice, especially given his experience in the Premier League. Yet one thing is for sure: Matic's capacity to help the side won't last forever.

[Photo: Дмитрий Голубович]

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