Matheus Henrique is a promising young central midfielder, currently playing for Grêmio in the Brasileiro Série A. The 22-year old’s performance in the centre of the park has been attracting interest since last season, after helping Grêmio reach the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores (losing to eventual the champion Flamengo) and placing fourth in the league table. His form earned him his Brazilian senior national team debut in October and convocation to the U23 Olympic team that qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This scout report will dive into Henrique’s playing style and system tactics at Grêmio through an in-depth tactical analysis, as well as why the youngster could be a top transfer target for possession-based sides in the future.
Dynamic passing and switching the point of attack
At Grêmio, Matheus Henrique is consistently utilized as one of three centre-midfielders in their 4-3-3 system. This system, also commonly deployed by European possession-based sides like Barcelona, Liverpool and Ajax, emphasizes keeping the ball and patiently building up attacks from the back. When Grêmio has the ball, Henrique is tasked with picking the ball up in deep positions, combining with the other midfield players and arming the attack. Once on the ball, Henrique simplifies his game into three actions: (i) quickly release the ball due to oncoming pressure, (ii) turn/make a small dribble to find a pass forward to create link-up play, or (iii) ping a pass to the opposite winger/fullback to switch the point of attack. By performing these three simple actions Henrique is able to keep the ball moving in midfield, limit the loss of possession and help Grêmio achieve an average possession rate of 56% last season (the fourth highest in the league).
This type of playing style consisting of controlled tempo passing has resulted in Henrique drawing overwhelming comparisons with his compatriot and Grêmio predecessor, Arthur Melo. However, it can be argued that Henrique is shaping up to be an even more complete midfielder that can attack more. Having been brought up through the youth ranks as a winger, Henrique naturally possesses more penetrating tendencies with his dribbling and linkup play. Including these characteristics, Henrique could profile as a player similar to Frenkie de Jong or Thiago Alcantara.
Henrique creates the triangle by moving into a deep position between the two centre-backs, receives from the right full back and begins to orchestrate the attack.
Action (i): Henrique reads the high press from the opponent, after receiving from the left-full-back he plays a one-touch pass to his other centre-midfielder and then spins off to receive a return ball from a one-two pass.
Action (ii): Henrique carries the ball forward and makes a small dribble with the outside of his right foot to create space and send a pass through the lines to link up with his forward player. Henrique quickly gets around the nearest defender to connect with the return pass and nearly plays a through pass into the box.
Action (iii): Henrique reads that the area is crowded, sees the free man on the other side and switches the point of attack via a long pass. The fullback decides not to take on his man and returns the ball to Henrique in the pivot role. Again Henrique realizes the free man on the opposite side and pings him a long ball. These diagonal/long passes from the pivot man are great for unleashing pacey wingers into 1v1 situations and are commonly used at other 4-3-3 systems, like Liverpool with Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah.
Positional awareness and interchangeability
Although Henrique is commonly used as a left or right-centre-mid due to his quickness on the ball and ability to cover space, Henrique can also play in the holding role. Depending on the shape of the opponent, Grêmio’s centre three will either create a triangle with two holding players or invert the triangle if there are two central players to mark higher up in the opponent’s half. For the 4-3-3 system to be really effective, players need to be fluid like this and quickly shift to maintain structure. By utilizing players in closest proximity to the ball to press, teams like Grêmio can ultimately force their opponents into errors.
Henrique demonstrates this positional awareness with his versatility and will to interchange positions with his fellow midfielders throughout a match to create spaces and combinations. This is very similar to the 4-3-3 ideology at Barcelona or Ajax, which permits players to interchange and create dynamic movement. Henrique also displays this flexibility in the defensive phases, moving out to wide areas to press the fullback when he is able to pass on his mark to a teammate or filling into the fullback position in quick transitions when his team is out of shape.
Henrique interchanges in the midfield and drops off to receive the ball creating the midfield triangle with a bottom two.
Matheus Henrique sees the space in the wide area and shifts over to exploit the gap while maintaining the midfield triangle but this time in an inverted form with only one player at the bottom of the triangle. The other centre midfielder receives and returns the ball back to the pivot player. Matheus then makes a run towards the middle to receive and plays a long pass to the opposite side.
Henrique is able to pass on his mark and press forward to challenge the opponent’s fullback.
After a loss of possession and quick counter from the opponent, Henrique is also quick to work back and fill in for the fullback when he gets caught further up the pitch.
Defensive effort and eagerness to win the ball back
Although Henrique is not the strongest or most solid defender, the youngster clearly plays with a hunger to recover the ball and is mindful of his defensive responsibilities. His reading of the game, quickness and tenacity allows him to consistently have ideal positioning to access the ball and is an asset to Grêmio in the defensive phase. Apart from this sense of urgency to win the ball back, Henrique’s greatest tool on defence is his reading of the game and anticipation. Henrique is constantly looking for ways to spring onto loose touches or square passes and has averaged ~3 interceptions per 90 minutes in the Brazilian league.
At times, however, the youngster can be lured to dive-in as he is eagerly trying to win the ball back or he can be reluctant to make a tactical foul to kill dangerous attacks from opponents. One could argue that the key to being a top defender is having the right mentality and grit to win the ball, which is certainly something Henrique possesses and displays. On the other hand, the art and mechanics of defending can be taught, developed and ultimately obtained with more experience. Henrique can definitely become a world-class ball-winner if he can maintain his mental approach and further develop his technique.
In the example below, Henrique anticipates the square pass and presses forward, ultimately winning the ball, leading to a dangerous attack forward. He services a quality pass on the ground to his striker in the box who misses the chance on goal.
Showcasing his tackling, Henrique is quick to arrive to challenge the opponent and stands firm in his defensive stance, while also cutting off the passing lane to the opponent’s central midfielder. Henrique forces the fullback to dribble down the line and is able to get a tackle in to win the ball back.
A look at the stats
Taking a simple quantitative approach to the evaluation of Matheus Henrique in the key topics of this analysis: (i) passing and (ii) defending, we can confirm that Matheus is performing at levels in-line with the midfielders in other possession-based systems like Barcelona, Liverpool and Ajax. Within passing, we can see that Henrique is making ~64 passes per 90 minutes at a completion rate 92%, moreover, of these passes, 17 are targeted forward and, most importantly, are completed at an impressive rate of 88%, only surpassed by Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong at 89%. On the defensive side, we can confirm the qualitative findings from earlier that Henrique is in fact engaged in the defensive phase, entering into ~5 defensive duels per 90min (higher than Georginio Wijnaldum, Ivan Rakitic and Arthur Melo) but needs improvement to increase his win rate, currently at 55%, which is noticeably less than the ~60%+ range we see in this sample set.
Henrique is a dynamic player and very mobile in both the attacking and defending aspects of the game. His patience, reading of the game and desire to construct creative attacks makes him an attractive candidate for top possession-based European clubs looking to add a balanced midfielder. Although the youngster definitely has areas to improve, namely his defensive effectiveness, Henrique is demonstrating that he has the adaptability and urge to continue his development to become a top-class midfielder. With the ageing of players like Sergio Busquets and rumoured departure of Rakitic, Barcelona could be an ideal home for the young Brazilian. Other options for Henrique could be a move to other 4-3-3 possession-based systems like Real Sociedad (2nd highest possession team in La Liga) or Ajax, where he could potentially find more consistency in playing time and drive a greater impact on the team. In either case, Henrique surely has a bright future ahead and is a name to keep on the radar.