Nemanja Matic: In the early months of last season Liverpool were undergoing a tactical malaise, mainly surrounding the set up of their midfield. Pairing an ageing Steven Gerrard alongside a now immobile Lucas Leiva didn’t work. Despite on paper the pairing showed defensive solidity, it only served to get the least out of both players.
In the following months the manager found a dynamic to suit Steven Gerrard, which quelled the calls to buy a defensive midfielder, such as Nemanja Matic. Although it could be said Brendan Rodgers decision to maximise the abilities of Steven Gerrard’s passing ability into the side last season and not buy a defensive midfielder, the Serbian, now back at Chelsea, is not only one of the finest defensive midfielders in the world but the embodiment of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea 2.0.
Only this week Matic has reopened wounds of last spring. Indeed, Chelea’s 2-0 victory over Liverpool effectively ended Liverpool’s title hopes, with the Serbian at the heart of the ruthless performance on the day. Matic has made jibes at Liverpool’s defensive woes this week.
“Many teams this season have tried to park the bus in front of the goal against us, but we win,” said Matic. “It’s not easy. If you defend, you have to know how to defend. In that game (in April) we showed we have quality. Nobody’s happy when you lose a game, and they weren’t happy after that match.”
This season some of Matic’s stats have been impressive; in the Champions League this season, wherein he has featured four times, he is averaging a high 6.8 tackles per game, while also making a respectable 1.8 interceptions per game. In the Premier League he’s still way above average, making 3.5 tackles and 1.6 interceptions per game.
Offensively Matic occasionally does contribute, making 0.6 key passes per game in the Premier League and 0.8 in the Champions League. Ultimately what it key though is Matic rules the roost these days when it comes to midfield dominance in the Premier League. Coming up against a Liverpool midfield once again struggling to find its feet its conceivable Matic will see his trip to Anfield on Saturday as an opportunity to dominate.
Steven Gerrard: Having previously spoken about Nemanja Matic, it seems pertinent to mention his likely direct opponent, Steven Gerrard. Having been rested from Liverpool’s starting XI against Real Madrid on Tuesday many eyebrows were arched. Not only has Brendan Rodgers been reluctant to rotate Steven Gerrard in any capacity to date, to start it in such a momentous game, was surprising.
Yet the decision was welcomed by most fans, though the decision to rest others like Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson may have irked many. In Gerrard’s absence, Emre Can came in to play a defensive midfield role and performed astutely.
While Can’s performance might have provided fans with a window to the future, it is beyond comprehension that Gerrard will not start on Saturday and attempt to quell the demons of that ‘slip’ last spring. Statistically Gerrard isn’t performing anywhere near the level of last season.
For example, offensively, Gerrard averaged 0.4 goals, created 2.08, took 1.87 shots, and made 0.4 assists per 90 minutes last season. This season Gerrard is averaging .2 goals, creating 2.4 chances, taking 0.9 shots and making 0.1 assists per 90 minutes.
Defensively, it’s a bigger drop off in form. Last season the Liverpool captain thrived in a deep lying play maker role. Flanked by the youthful exuberance and energy of Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho, he was able to pick his moments in the defensive third. Gerrard made on average 1.46 interceptions, 2.21 tackles and 50.34% of his duels in the 2013/14 season.
Now, playing among the malaise of tactical indiscipline seen this season for the Reds, the drop off is startling. Gerrard now averages 0.4 interceptions, 1.5 tackles and wins 49.09% of his duels per 90 minutes.
While how much of Gerrard’s form can be put down to the wider problems among Liverpool’s misfiring season is unclear, the drop-off in form does indicate the captain’s powers are continuing to wane and more occasions of being rested may be required to utilise his talents at a level where not only he, but the whole team, will play better.
Oscar: Oscar Dos Santos may be one of the most deceivingly effective players in the Premier League. Having signed for Chelsea in the summer of 2012 for a fee of £19.35 million, many questioned whether a player coming straight from the Brasileirao would adapt to English football sufficiently.
It didn’t take Oscar long to adapt though. He made his first start of the season in Chelsea’s first Champions League match against Juventus. After making the match 1–0 in favour of Chelsea with a deflected effort, he added a stunning second, which curled over Juventus keeper Gianluigi Buffon. Oscar was then duly awarded the Man of the Match award; an indicator of more success to come for the Brazilian.
While Oscar may have found the early months under the management of Jose Mourinho somewhat difficult, he was not alone. Eden Hazard too took time to adapt to the increased prerequisite work rate Mourinho demands of his team. Often shunted out to the ring wing Oscar has had to learn to adapt his game, and pick his moments sparingly to shine. Despite the allowed adaption period under Mourinho, Oscar didn’t failed to contribute offensively.
In Oscar’s first season under the management of Rafa Benitez and then Roberto Di Matteo, the attacking midfielder netted 10 goals and made six assists across the Premier League, Champions League, and Europa League. That meant Oscar was directly involved in a goal every 197 minutes in his maiden season across the aforementioned competitions.
Comparatively under Mourinho Oscar averaged a direct involvement in a goal every 190 minutes in the 2013/14 season, having scored eight and assisted twice in the Premier League, while scoring one and assisting four times in the Champions League.
While Oscar is yet to get off the mark this season in European competition, his domestic contribution has taken a big leap forward. Having scored three goals and assisted twice Oscar has been directly involved in a goal every 130 minutes for Chelsea in this Premier League campaign.
Playing behind Steven Gerrard on Saturday, who may be preoccupied with Nemanja Matic in front, Oscar should have the space to thrive and thwart the Liverpool defence and prove he is a key player in the Premier League elite.