How McTominay has allowed Man Utd to win again

The Scotland midfielder’s return from injury meant Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could play to his side’s strengths against Tottenham and Manchester City

In the space of one week, Scott McTominay has demonstrated why he deserves his rumoured new contract with two hugely influential performances for Manchester United.

At Manchester City on Saturday, he was part of a team that put on one of the best displays seen against a Pep Guardiola side in years, just three days after providing the platform on which a morale-boosting 2-1 win over Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham was built.

In both games, the Scot’s physical stature, ability to shield the defence and reliable passing dovetailed brilliantly with midfield partner Fred.

While the Brazilian showed a relentless desire to win back the ball, it would have not been as effective had McTominay not been selected alongside him to provide a steadier hand.

The pair play as if their ages are reversed, as it is the 23-year-old McTominay who plays and conducts himself with more authority than the three years older Fred.

Of course, that is perhaps unsurprising given McTominay immediately endeared himself to the fans as soon as he broke into the senior squad due to his obvious commitment to the cause, and his popularity has only increased because of his vast and sustained improvement over the past couple of years.

That is not to say that McTominay did not have his critics. There were comparisons with Darren Fletcher, and while pessimistic, they were hardly without merit. Here was another Scotland midfielder who had not yet grown into his frame, and who did not promise the spectacular.

There was nothing on the surface that suggested he would be capable of transforming a club approaching disarray.

Indeed, while Fletcher developed into a reliable player over the course of several years, McTominay’s potential looks far higher than Fletcher’s did.

The future is also starting to look brighter for Fred.

After more than a season of justified doubts among the supporters and pundits, he did not let his confidence or willingness to compete dim, and is now starting to show why United paid Shakhtar Donetsk £53 million ($70m) for his services.

Perhaps it was through a lack of interested parties elsewhere, but there are few players these days who can take sustained criticism and choose to prove themselves, rather than absent themselves or force a transfer.

Still, while Fred undoubtedly deserves his share of the credit for United’s back-to-back wins over Spurs and City, it must also be acknowledged that his and United’s resurgence has coincided with McTominay’s return from injury.

The Scotland international’s inclusion has seen Andreas Pereira dropped to the bench, and allowed an important tactical shift.

Pereira has his qualities but, for now, they do not outweigh his weaknesses. The occasionally incisive pass or spectacular goal comes in handy, but his relative lack of pace and strength means he is more often a passenger than a driver.

McTominay may not be the fastest player at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s disposal, but he provides more power and presence, and retains the ball far better than Pereira. By contributing to ball retention and physical dominance, it has allowed Solskjaer to introduce an extra forward.

Jesse Lingard might not have the talent to justify his widespread media presence but he is nevertheless the kind of player United need right now.

They will need a better attacking midfielder as soon as they can bring one in, of course, but his presence has built on United’s strengths while McTominay helps mitigate problems at the back. Lingard’s pace and direct play adds to the uniform qualities of the side’s attack.

With Lingard tucked in behind Anthony Martial and flanked by Marcus Rashford and Daniel James, and two of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Luke Shaw and Brandon Williams occupying the full-back berths, there are finally enough pacey players in the starting 11 for it to matter.

Against Spurs and City, United were able to stretch play not just down one flank, but both. By doing that, space also opens up down the middle for Martial and Lingard to operate, and for both Fred and McTominay to lend support. 

McTominay is clearly not the only reason for United’s improvement. Solskjaer attests that the players are improving physically after a year of sluggishness and niggles.

There are no suggestions that the players have stopped fighting for their manager, and perhaps a sense of cohesion and unity is also building.

However, the importance of McTominay’s presence in the line-up should not be underestimated: he is now demonstrably integral to allowing his team-mates to play to their strengths. That’s a quality that few players possess.

“Scott McTominay is only the best player at Manchester United,” were Mourinho’s words on Tuesday, and though the Portuguese was using McTominay as a mechanism to defend his own record with introducing youngsters into senior football, if this season is anything to go by then his claim rings true.

People have claimed that when Juan Mata or Paul Pogba underperform it is because they do not have a team of sufficient quality to play with. That is a reasonable point in some respects, but McTominay shows something like the opposite: he will improve whatever situation he is part of at United.

When asked about McTominay last week, Solskjaer summed up his character by saying: “So professional. Not tainted by any super-stardom or fame. He wants to be the best he can. That is the kind of player I want.” 

It is hard not to read that as a dig at the players that left the club over the summer or found themselves on the fringes this season.

There may yet be too much pressure being placed upon McTominay but, up until now, he has shown himself to be the heart of a United side that is finally, maybe only briefly, delivering a sense of hope for the future.

The fans have waited too long for that feeling.

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