In recent seasons promising young English midfielders have burst onto the scene in the English Premier League and have impacted squads in dire need of local talent. Players like Eric Dier and Dele Alli have become international stars because of how influential they’ve been for club and country. Added to that, players such as Harry Winks, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Lewis Cook have all made their England debuts after adapting to the Premier League quite well. Scott McTominay’s rise, on the other hand, is quite unique and is a testament to his potential for one reason. In recent years, none of the traditional English powerhouses(Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City) have managed to produce an established academy graduate in such an important position. And no… Jack Wilshere doesn’t count.
Managers have been reluctant to field academy prospects because they can buy better, more experienced players with the huge amounts of cash afforded to them at these clubs. Also, young English midfielders have generally failed to adapt to the demanding systems implemented by managers who are always under pressure to deliver instant results. Examples of players who failed to make the grade at these big clubs include Jack Rodwell, Nathan Chalobah and even Loftus-Cheek himself who Antonio Conte decided to loan out to Crystal Palace before buying the more experienced Danny Drinkwater.
Surprisingly, Jose Mourinho who has been under huge amounts of pressure this season, has shown huge amounts of faith to include the 21-year old, Lancaster born midfielder in the 1st team. Not only did he included him the 1st team but he has trusted him to start in vital fixtures against Chelsea, Liverpool and Sevilla. McTominay impressed with his solid performances and even earned a call-up to play for Scotland, making his debut last week against Costa Rica. It has been a remarkable rise for McTominay and in this analysis, I’ll discuss his style of play as well as the unique traits he brings to the Manchester United squad.
United’s midfield issues
Before we take a further look into McTominay’s playing style, it is important to understand why Jose Mourinho values him so much. Basically, United were suffering defensively because of how ill-suited Paul Pogba was in the defensive midfield position. His attacking nature, poor tactical discipline and below average defensive capabilities meant that opposition teams were afforded too much space within advanced midfield positions. Also given Mourinho’s preference for a 4-2-3-1 system and reluctance to play a 3-man midfield(as well as injuries here and there to Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera), he needed to find a player to partner Nemanja Matic before the problems worsened. It was during this period that Scott McTominay came to the fore. You can check out a full explanation of Mourinho’s midfield problems in the following article:
Scott McTominay’s playing style and biggest asset can be easily summed up in one word. Simplicity. Not only does his defensive midfield role under Mourinho have clearly defined instructions but his actions are also very straightforward, which allows him to be very effective.
Defensively, his role requires him to screen attacks away from central areas and protect the back 4. His dynamism and energy complement Matic, who is more calculated in his positioning and doesn’t recover fast enough when opposition players get past him. However, McTominay rarely needs to use his athletic ability as he rarely makes the mistake of letting opponents get past him because of his excellent positioning. He doesn’t compromise when it comes to prioritising his defensive duty and therefore never strays too far away from his position.
Going back to United’s midfield issues; because Mourinho favours a man-oriented marking style, the players especially whoever he selects to play in the double-pivot has to be excellent in 1 on 1 duels. Paul Pogba is quite sluggish when it comes to defensive challenges while McTominay is aggressive, strong but most importantly agile too. He is also very good at anticipating opposition passes before challenging for the ball or stepping forward to intercept it. The man-marking role he performed on Eden Hazard was spectacular to watch but it was the perfect game for him to display his defensive strengths previously mentioned.
When McTominay is on the ball, it’s clear to see that the club have found the perfect long-term replacement for Micheal Carrick. Like I said, his actions are very straightforward and this allows him to be very effective. Principally, his task in United’s midfield is to assist the ball’s progression from the middle 3rd into advanced areas. He does this is in a very conservative manner, rarely playing passes longer than 8-12 metres, unless a switch of play is necessary. In the case that he loses possession from a short pass(which rarely happens), the recovery distance is minimal as the ball wouldn’t be too far away from him. It’s the sort of principle that Cruyff used at Barcelona: playing passes with a distance of no more than 10m, allows you to be in close proximity to the ball(to press) if you lose it.
His passing is very crisp, and his accuracy is also fantastic. Again, the simplicity of his game means he doesn’t run the risk of making errors, although he is not averse to playing more difficult vertical passes. He is great at realizing when to play passes in behind the opponent’s lines or whether to play a simple pass to a player near him. Tactically, he is great at creating space for himself by using double-movements, especially when he is marked. He does this by moving into a different area before returning to receive the ball. The timing of his movements are important, as he arrives in areas, rather than simply waiting for the ball. This means that United can circulate the ball fluidly and McTominay’s movement is key.
Yet another great aspect of McTominay’s game is his press-resistance. Not only does he receive the ball in good positions, his body positioning in these situations is excellent. His positional awareness is fantastic and the fact that he is comfortable under pressure is an added benefit. His ball control is good, and he generally gets the better of players in 1v1 situations. One big advantage he has compared to United’s other midfielders, Herrera and Fellaini, is his ability to use his weight very effectively to keep possession and throw off opponents. He seems to have a very combative nature and just by watching him, it’s quite obvious that he uses his big frame and his agility to keep possession. Fellaini, on the other hand, can be quite clumsy while Herrera isn’t the strongest of players either.
In terms of weaknesses, McTominay can still work on his positional awareness and setting the ball up for the next pass with his first touch. A reference you could use as someone who has mastered a position similar to his is Toni Kroos. Kroos is very efficient in setting the rhythm of his teams’ play with his pass selection, and he makes his decisions very quickly. But his decision making is only as good as it is because of how aware he is of his surroundings, where his teammates are but also because his first touch allows him to perform an action right away. Kroos usually has no problem playing under pressure, and never loses the ball in 1 on 1 situations(even when it looks likely), even though he doesn’t have the same physical strength that McTominay has. Another department that McTominay also hasn’t contributed in is goalscoring. He rarely finds himself in good shooting areas from range. Whether that’s a question of his inability to time his runs into zones outside of the box(think Frank Lampard) or the fact that his defensive tasks prevent him from doing so, is hard to say. At the moment, however, that shouldn’t be too much of a concern. United’s central attacking options, Alexis Sanchez and Pogba should be the ones who are responsible for creating goals/chances from that area.
Finally, McTominay’s character traits have been the subject of much praise by none more so than Jose Mourinho himself. As mentioned above, McTominay has a very combative nature which is not only perfect for his defensive midfield role but he becomes an asset in tough games such as the ones against Chelsea and Liverpool. Due to the difficult period he suffered in his formative years, he has developed a strong mentality and remains unaffected by the hype around him. In a long-winded criticism of his team after a 2-0 win against Brighton in the F.A. Cup, Mourinho singled out McTominay as the only player who showed ‘personality’ despite having one of his worst games this season. Take a look at this video to see just how much love Mourinho has for him: