Football Features

Four Nemanja Matic replacements Man Utd should target in January

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 15:30, 3 January 2022 | Updated: 11:49, 5 January 2022

Manchester United are looking to replace Nemanja Matic in the January transfer window.

New manager Ralf Rangnick had previously said “from my experience, winter is not the best time for sustainable transfers,” but after a rocky start to his managerial campaign with some middling performances against largely poor opposition, he may have changed his mind.

The Athletic’s Laurie Whitwell has said that Rangnick wants a “tall midfielder as a top priority, essentially a replacement for Nemanja Matic.” And this makes sense when you consider that the defensive midfield line in Rangnick’s 4-2-2-2 system is the only line in which there is no one player you could even say to be above average.

Matic has his moments, of course, but is a faded force too rarely in form. Whitwell says that Rangnick “admires Declan Rice and, of course, Jude Bellingham,” but concedes that neither man will move in January.

While finding a midfielder as tall as the 6’4 (194cm) Matic may be tricky, if we take the 6’1 (185cm) Declan Rice as the baseline both in terms of physical profile but also technical excellence, who else could the Red Devils target in January?

Aurelien Tchouameni

  • Age: 21
  • Club: Monaco
  • Country: France
  • Height: 6’2 (187cm)

This young French wonder is one of the hottest properties on the transfer market right now and it’s easy to see why. This defensive midfielder can do it all on the field and has already shown himself capable of playing international football like a backyard kickabout.

So far this season, Tchouameni has played 1,461 minutes for Monaco, racking up an impressive 45 tackles and 35 interceptions. He’s also attempted 1,039 passes including 246 in the opponents final third. He is an exceptionally balanced player capable of breaking up play and then moving the ball forward in a prompt and accurate manner in the exact way Rangnick likes his defensive midfielders to do.

Does Tchouameni pass the Rice Test?

Emphatically so, yes. Tchouameni’s radar shows how well-rounded he is as a player, covering almost every area you would want a defensive midfielder to. He outstrips Rice in terms of production both with and without the ball. Now, obviously you can’t compare roles and leagues with complete accuracy, but given how obviously brilliant Rice is, the potential for Tchouameni to be at least as good is clear.

None less than Cesc Fabregas himself have said that Tchouameni could become “the complete midfielder” in time. And for sure Monaco would demand a high premium given the interest of other elite sides like Real Madrid and Chelsea, but if United act fast they could beat them all to the punch and secure a true marvel for a decade of dominance at Old Trafford.

Joao Palhinha

  • Age: 26
  • Club: Sporting Portugal
  • Country: Portugal
  • Height: 6’3 (190cm)

You may have seen him play for Portugal at times, and Palhinha’s ascendance to the international stage has definitely taken its time. But now he’s there he is definitely and clearly a player of great defensive strength.

He only recently signed a new contract, and in that contract was a release clause of €60m intended to ward off potential suitors. But a fee that large should be no obstacle to a club like Manchester United, and is pretty much the same size as the initial fee paid to Sporting for Bruno Fernandes back in January 2020, and that worked out alright didn’t it? United have gambled with the Lisbon-based club even before Bruno (i.e. Cristiano Ronaldo) and Palhinha could complete a hat-trick of stellar purchases.

Does Palhinha pass the Rice Test?

Not really. Palhinha is a ferocious tackler who you can imagine thriving in Ralf Rangnick’s system of play. And he is definitely adept at shifting the ball to his more talented teammates but one need only see the drop-off in forward passes to suspect that Palhinha’s play-it-safe approach (albeit perhaps an instructed approach) leaves him some ways short of West Ham’s Golden God. That’s not to say he couldn’t work as an elite disruptor for United, of course, but he’s more tempered and less expansive with the ball.

Ibrahim Sangaré

  • Age: 24
  • Club: PSV
  • Country: Ivory Coast
  • Height: 6’3 (191cm)

Stats can sometimes be taken a bit too seriously but when a player dominates them across the board, you have to sit up and pay attention. Across all central and defensive midfielders 185cm or taller across Europe’s big seven leagues (the big five plus Portugal and the Netherlands) Sangaré ranks second for completed dribbles (31/40), joint-third for goals (3), fifth for passes completed (1,000/1,155), third for tackles (48) and first for interceptions (49), and all from 1,281 minutes.

Sure, one can point out that he’s playing in the Eredivisie, which is obviously a lower standard but that is, quite frankly, ridiculous. He’s even had two special cards in FUT, so the folks over at EA Sports have also realised how special he is.

Does Sangaré pass the Rice Test?

Obscenely so. Where Tchouameni got out-done by Rice on a couple of metrics, Sangaré slaps him aside across the board. Again, one must take into account the leagues they’re playing in and teams they are facing; Sangaré isn’t better than Declan Rice, but that he can statistically outdo him to such a ridiculous degree is immensely promising.

There is literally nothing he can’t do in the game. At 24 years of age he is just now coming into his prime period, perfectly poised for a big move to a big club. Ralf Rangnick and Manchester United could be the perfect platform for this Ivorian to take-off and soar into the stratosphere. He has the talent, United have the need and the coach. It could be so good.

Renato Tapia

  • Age: 26
  • Club: Celta Vigo
  • Country: Peru
  • Height: 6’1 (185cm)

Ironically, according to AS, Liverpool rejected Renato Tapia after a 2009 trial period because they didn’t expect him to grow taller than 180cm.

Nowadays, he has been labelled “Casemiro’s Peruvian clone” and that alone should tell you why he’s worth considering for Manchester United. While the Premier League’s previous efforts to mine the brilliance at Celta Vigo have mostly failed, Renato Tapia would likely be an exception to that rule were he to join Old Trafford.

At 26, Renato Tapia already has a dedicated maturity to his game and provided he can overcome the language barrier and culture shock, his tough-tackling style (forged in the fires on Conmebol World Cup qualification) would be a perfect fit with the Premier League.

Does Renato Tapia pass the Rice Test?

Mostly. Renato Tapia is a ferocious and elite tackler who excels at winning the ball back and then driving it forward towards his more attacking teammates. He is also well versed in the dark arts, winning plenty of fouls for his side as a way to break up the tempo of the opponent’s press.

Renato Tapia is a much less illustrious name than some of the others United have been linked with, but he is a talented stopper who would fit into Rangnick’s system perfectly. He doesn’t dribble like Declan, but besides that he mostly passes the Rice Test and with a buyout clause of just €30m would be a cheap and savvy option to instantly improve the United midfield.