Matheus Fernandes‘ last 18 months have been a rollercoaster. After making his professional debut in January 2017 for Botafogo aged only 18, Fernandes played 85 games in two seasons before Palmeiras paid four million euros for him in January 2019. Despite only playing 12 matches in his 12 months at the club, Barcelona bought him for seven million euros last January and loaned him to Real Valladolid, but he hasn’t made his debut yet.
A former Brazil U17 and U20 player, Fernandes still needs to prove he’s worth the money Palmeiras and Barcelona paid for him. In this tactical analysis, we will see how the 1998-born midfielder could adapt to La Liga and Barcelona’s tactics.
Fernandes is a right-footed defensive midfielder who usually plays in a 4-2-3-1 formation. He’s usually the more positional player in that duo and he’s expected to play as the defensive midfielder in Barcelona’s 4-3-3.
His good height (183 cm / 6’0’’), strength and pace make him a sound defensive player, and he has some technical qualities that could help him fit Barcelona’s attacking tactics.
As we will see in this scout report, Fernandes usually sits in front of his centre-backs, acting as a deep-lying playmaker and covering that zone in defence. His heat map shows that he plays mostly in central zones and behind the ball:
Conservative playmaking with quality details
Fernandes is usually near the centre-backs when his team try to play from the back, making good movements behind the first pressing line to receive the ball. He has personality and is not afraid to receive the ball in small pockets of space, and his teammates know he’s a trustworthy option and try to find him with the first passes from the defensive line. Once the ball is ahead of him, he rarely makes runs from behind and prefers to provide support positioning himself behind the ball in central zones.
When he receives the ball, one of his best traits is his first touch. Fernandes has a good body shape and with only one touch he can turn and face the part of the pitch he wants to advance to. In the image below, we see how he receives a short pass and with his first touch, he faces forward and leaves the pressure behind.
When it comes to his passing, Fernandes is a very conservative player. He usually plays backwards or to the sides and rarely makes passes forward. He does have the ability to play forward and can beat lines with his passing, so this conservative approach seems more a matter of confidence than of quality. We will have an analysis on this later on.
We see an example of this risk aversion in the image below. Fernandes has the ball in midfield and has two good options to progress with quite simple passes. But in this case, he doesn’t feel sure about it and prefers to pass the ball back to the centre-back. This was one of the only six games he started for Palmeiras in 2019, so it could be a matter of confidence.
In the next example, we see Fernandes’ ability to play forward passes. He has the ball in a situation similar to the one in the previous example, but this time he plays a perfect ball between three rivals to find a teammate in a dangerous position. He clearly can make this kind of passes when he feels comfortable with his game.
But he also makes mistakes that he has to avoid to succeed at Barcelona. Sometimes the same lazy decision-making that makes him play too conservative passes also makes him try forward passes without clearly evaluating if they are good options. It seems a matter of focus, as he seems to be out of the game at some points.
This lack of consistency can be seen in the next picture. Fernandes receives the ball from the right-back and instead of playing it back, he decides to attempt a progressive pass when the passing line doesn’t exist at all. The pass is easily intercepted and Fernandes is forced to give away a foul to stop the counterattack.
Fernandes is much better when he’s facing the opposite goal than when he receives between the lines facing his own goal. When he intercepts a pass, he can start the counterattacks with good runs, showing his acceleration, pace and technique to carry the ball forward. He has a good combination of pace and technique to break the lines using powerful runs with the ball.
While he is capable of some quality details when under pressure, playing some smart passes and avoiding pressure with good turns, Fernandes doesn’t excel playing in more advanced positions. He’s not good in one-vs-one situations in tight spaces and doesn’t have the quality to assist when he’s near the box. He needs to dictate from deep positions and see the pitch from there to make the best of his attributes.
Natural defending abilities
Apart from his interesting on the ball abilities, Fernandes has all the traits to be a great defensive midfielder. His physical conditions are great and he’s dominant in duels, using his body and legs very well to recover the ball.
Fernandes is very quick to press the rival, closing down spaces very effectively. He is also good in one-vs-one defending. He has the agility to change directions quickly and avoid getting caught out of shape by the attackers. He’s a great tackler in difficult situations, showing his flexibility and strength to take advantage of any space the rival leaves uncovered.
But all these defensive abilities need to be used properly, and Fernandes some times doesn’t make the most out of them. He’s very reactive in his defending and only tracks back when he feels the danger, leaving a lot of space between him and the defensive line. He should trackback as soon as the ball surpasses him and recover his position in front of the centre-backs instead of jogging back until it’s too late.
Sometimes, Fernandes makes up for this positioning mistakes by using his pace and making last-minute tackles. But there are some plays, like the one below, where he can’t get back in time. In the picture, we see Fernandes arriving at the box late and leaving a lot of space between the defenders and him for the striker to take advantage of.
Once he’s positioned in front of his defensive line, Fernandes is capable of using his quickness to anticipate and is decent in the air, providing some good cover. He’s very good when he has to defend the back of the full-backs as he excels in one-vs-one duels and has the pace to chase fast wingers on the flanks.
Stats support what has been mentioned before in this analysis. We will have a look at Fernande’s stats in the 2019 season with Palmeiras and in the 2018 season with Botafogo to see how he has developed too.
Fernandes is excellent in defensive duels, both in quantity (10.28 defensive duels/90’) and in winning rate (65.15% of duels won). He performs better than most of the central and defensive midfielders in Brazil for those metrics. He has also improved a lot from 2018, when he was an average midfielder in the league with eight defensive duels per 90’, and winning 57.84% of them. His interceptions stood out too, with 4.78/90’ in 2018 and 4.2 in 2019.
We can appreciate the consequence of his positioning issues in the number of fouls he commits. In 2019 he was one of the midfielders with the most fouls committed per 90’ with 2.49. If he were in the correct place he wouldn’t need to use fouls to end the attacks as he does now.
His dribbling is also great for a defensive midfielder. In the last two seasons, he has completed more dribbles per 90’ than more of the 75% of the players in his position in the league and his success rate was better than the majority too. In 2018 attempted 2.9 dribbles/90’ with a 58.11% success rate, and in 2019 he attempted 2.34 with a slightly better rate of 60%.
However, his passing wasn’t as good as his defensive actions. The only relevant stats where Fernandes was in the top 50% of the league in 2019 were his pass completion (87.5%) and his progressive pass completion (80.65%). For other passing stats as forward and passes completed and passes into the attacking third he was in the bottom 50% of the league. Anyway, he has improved a lot from 2018, when he ranked in the bottom 25% in all these stats. This shows his creativity needs improvement, especially considering his goal is to play for an attacking team like Barcelona.
In the next charts, we can see a summary of his key stats. The improvement from 2018 to 2019 was great, even if it needs to be taken carefully as he played 2,303 minutes in 2018 and only 586 in 2019. In the charts, each column represents how Fernandes compares to the rest of central midfielders in the league.
Fernandes has some great abilities that can still make him a good player. His physical attributes and ability to show quality details could be very valuable for a UEFA Champions League club like Barcelona, and that’s why he was an attractive player for them.
But he still needs to show those abilities consistently and be mentally strong to perform in unfavourable conditions. He’s young but not a teenage prodigy anymore, so he has to take that step forward now if he wants to become an elite player.
At the moment it doesn’t seem realistic that he will take a spot in Barcelona’s first team next season. A loan to another La Liga club seems the best option for him, and a season with Barcelona B to adapt to their playing style could be a good step too.