Great, Scott. Midfield utility-man McTominay’s growing importance to Manchester United

Great, Scott. Midfield utility-man McTominay’s growing importance to Manchester United

Scott McTominay joined Manchester United as an academy player in 2002 at the age of five, later signing professional terms ahead of the 2013/14 season. After progressing to the under-18s, he underwent a significant evolution during the next two years as a growth spurt resulted in him growing to approximately 1,93m tall. This affected his development as a footballer, as he initially struggled to adapt to his now significantly larger frame, which also brought him injury problems.

United’s youth team coaches nevertheless persisted with the Lancaster-born player, who was originally used as a centre-forward. Their persistence was matched by the youngster’s work ethic and attitude, and he soon established himself in the youth teams after being converted to a central midfielder under former reserve team manager Warren Joyce. He has since gone on to establish himself in the United first-team, which has, in turn, led to him earning nine caps for Scotland, whom he qualifies to play for via his father’s Scottish heritage.

McTominay got his first taste of first-team action at United when he was named on the bench in the Premier League against Swansea City at Old Trafford towards the end of the 2016/17 season. He followed this up by making his debut away at Arsenal and he later made his full debut in United’s final league match that season, at home to Crystal Palace. These games, of course, took place with United unlikely to end the season in the top four, by which time then-manager Jose Mourinho had decided to prioritise winning the UEFA Europa League as a means of getting United back into the UEFA Champions League.

Mourinho used these fixtures to give youth team players a taste of the Premier League; Axel Tuanzebe made his debut in the Arsenal fixture and featured regularly until the season’s end, while Joel Pereira, Demetri Mitchell and the now-departed Joshua Harrop also made their full debuts in the Palace fixture. McTominay went on the pre-season tour ahead of the 2017/18 season, during which he opened his goalscoring account for the club, in a friendly against Norwegian side Valerenga. 

United was dealt a significant blow during the season, as then club-captain Michael Carrick was left unable to play for the majority of the season, owing to a heart condition which preceded his retirement from the game. McTominay stepped up to feature regularly in Carrick’s absence, later signing a contract extension with the club. He followed this up by being named in Scotland’s squad for a friendly against Costa Rica, in which he later started.

For his efforts over the course of the season, McTominay ended the season receiving an award dubbed the Manager’s Player of the Year by Mourinho. A competitive debut for Scotland soon followed at the beginning of 2018/19 and while he only made a handful of appearances until the Mourinho’s dismissal, McTominay was rewarded with another contract extension in January 2019.

Around a month later, regular holding midfielder Nemanja Matićwas ruled of the clash against title-chasing Liverpool at Old Trafford. McTominay stepped in and helped United battle to a goalless draw, despite losing three players to injury inside the first half and Marcus Rashford having to play the second through injury. McTominay ended this match alongside fellow academy graduates Paul Pogba and Andreas Pereira in midfield.

He was again required to step up a few weeks later for the second leg of the Champions League Round of 16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain, as Matić and Herrera had failed to recover from injury while Pogba was suspended having been sent off in the first leg, which United lost 2-0. McTominay and fellow midfielders Pereira and Fred did not disappoint, as they helped United to a famous comeback win against the French champions.

McTominay was later pictured wiping away tears during the celebrations after Marcus Rashford smashed home the injury-time penalty to seal progression to the next round. His efforts proved to be in vain against FC Barcelona, who triumphed 4-0 on aggregate. Nevertheless, McTominay was arguably United’s best player in the first leg at Old Trafford, which Barcelona won 1-0. He started that game as one of the more advanced centre midfielders alongside Pogba, while Fred played the holding role.

McTominay did not look out of place against experienced campaigners Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitić, and one could argue that he outperformed his midfield teammates, who were purchased by United at around £90 million and £50 million respectively. United’s end of season slump was well underway by that point and the team regularly struggled to deliver strong performances, even during games where they emerged victorious.

This downturn in form led to the Champions League exit, elimination from the FA Cup by Wolverhampton Wanderers as well as failure to hang on to fourth place in the Premier League, which they had only managed to claw back due to a sharp upturn in form after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took the reins as the caretaker manager. In addition to his impressive showings in midfield, McTominay opened his competitive goal scoring account for United, scoring in a 2-1 league defeat at Wolves, before adding another in a 1-1 draw away at Huddersfield Town.

McTominay’s performances during this period are one of only a few positives supporters can take away from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign as the permanent manager. It also proved to be especially timely for United, who sold Marouane Fellaini in January and were preparing for the departure of Ander Herrera at the seasons close. McTominay, while not a direct replacement for either of them, has proved himself capable of performing in roles previously occupied by the two, although he does not possess the aerial ability that made Fellaini a threat in the opposition penalty area. This is perhaps something he should look to improve, given considerable stature.

It is also no surprise that McTominay has earned the trust of both Mourinho and Solskjaer, as well as his former international manager, Alex McLeish. This is likely due to his outstanding work ethic as well as his understanding of the different roles he has played in midfield. His height makes him a considerable presence, while his energy and work rate make him a nuisance to opposition players.

His passing ability has also shown signs of improvement and is likely to get even better, especially now that he is under the tutelage of Michael Carrick. In performing the various roles, McTominay has also demonstrated a willingness to understand and carry out tactical instructions given to him by both his United managers. While this may not be the most glamourous job to do in football, previous United teams have relied on hard-working players in midfield, whose primary purpose is to stifle the opponent, particularly against elite opposition with top quality midfielders.

Players who have performed similar duties in United teams include Roy Keane, Nicky Butt as well as Phil Neville and John O’Shea when they were selected in midfield and most recently, Ander Herrera. Herrera’s performances are particularly noteworthy, as he almost completely restrained his attacking instincts in order to play the holding midfield role, which required primarily defensive “dirty work” along with recycling possession after it was won back.

He did this with aplomb during 2016/17, culminating with a Man of the Match performance in the 2017 Europa League final, after receiving United’s Player of the Year award a few days earlier. The ability of a single player to perform to the required standard in different roles is vital to the current United squad, which has been moulded and shaped by five different permanent managers. There are also question marks over the most suitable roles for the recent academy graduates, as well as how they should be integrated into the first-team.

A player as versatile as McTominay, who has also played at centre-back in the first-team and attacking midfielder in the youth teams, represents a valuable asset to a team which once again finds itself in transition. He is more mobile and energetic than the ageing Matić when it comes to playing the holding role, while his height and range of passing have proven to be more than useful when he’s played further forward. In recent times, McTominay has also shown himself to be somewhat of a leader among the group of younger players within United’s first-team squad. 

He mentioned just a few days ago that he was “looking after” new signing Daniel James, which is something that may be transferred onto the pitch in the coming season. McTominay’s path to the first-team is a template for current academy players to follow. He overcame the changes brought about by his growth spurt by working hard to evolve as a player to match the physical change he underwent. This is something that’s been drilled into United academy players over the years; their talent is one thing but hard work and the correct attitude is just as, if not more important to succeeding at Manchester United.

Written by Shiven Nayager

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