Erik ten Hag has been accused of underutilising Scott McTominay at Manchester United this season, but the situation is a little more complicated than him just being out of favour.
Scott McTominay may be a completely inoffensive footballer, but throughout his Manchester United career he’s been a fairly divisive topic of discussion.
He was handed his full Premier League debut as a 20-year-old in May 2017 by José Mourinho, starting in a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace. As a youth player, he’d spent much of his time playing up front or in advanced roles, but in the first team he was seen as an option in central midfield or just in front of the defence.
Even during those early months, when young players might get the benefit of the doubt, McTominay wasn’t universally popular. Mourinho had clearly seen something in him, which is fair enough as he’d be spending a lot more time watching him play in training than the average fan. But there were plenty of supporters just a bit confused about what McTominay was supposed to offer, or what sort of player he actually was.
Frequently playing alongside another player ill-suited to a role just in front of the defence – Fred – in the infamous McFred axis can’t have helped the young McTominay, and it should also be noted that it’s hardly his fault he was deployed in that position; it’s on the managers.
Mourinho has always been a staunch defender of McTominay. Sometimes he got a little carried away, suggesting in 2019 that he was “only the best player at Manchester United”, but the point stands. In July 2017 during United’s pre-season tour, Mourinho said “half a dozen” of his young players could be first-team regulars “in a few years”; McTominay was the only one to ever become anything close to regular.
And yet, here we are in 2023 having more or less the same debates about McTominay as we were in 2017 or 2018. He still polarises opinion, it’s still difficult to nail down precisely what he should be for United, and he’s nearly 27.
Of course, a recent purple patch in front of goal has brought the discussion to a broader audience. He scored twice off the bench earlier this month as Man Utd stunned Brentford with a late 2-1 win despite McTominay only coming on in the 87th minute. His brace made it the club’s latest comeback win in Premier League history.
And then he scored again on Saturday, a scrappy – but most importantly accurate – finish that opened the scoring in an eventual 2-1 win over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane. Of course, he did also concede the penalty from which the Blades scored, but it was a handball offence that could’ve happened to anyone.
McTominay has emerged as a dependable goalscorer at international level this year as well, netting six times in as many Euro 2024 qualifying games for Scotland – and his tally would’ve been seven had his incredible free-kick away to Spain earlier this month not been controversially disallowed.
He tends to be a player that neutrals are quite keen on, and there are plenty of United fans who rate him too; he’s a fine physical specimen, clearly possesses some technical ability and undeniably has a good attitude. The ‘McSauce’ nickname might feel tongue-in-cheek or laced with irony for some, though not for everyone, and his recent scoring habits seem to have led to more people pondering why he doesn’t play that often for a United side that, let’s face it, isn’t exactly pulling up trees.
This strikes at the core of the issue: it’s difficult to justify his output as a central or defensive midfielder. For instance, at Bramall Lane on Saturday he completed just eight passes in 63 minutes of a match that United ended with 62.5% possession. And it wasn’t a case of him having lots of the ball but being inaccurate with his passing; he only attempted nine in total despite lining up in the centre alongside Sofyan Amrabat, who completed 56 of 66 passes over the full game. In fact, the majority of McTominay’s touches took place on the right flank just inside his own half, a bizarre situation considering United already had plenty of width with Diogo Dalot and Antony. McTominay’s replacement, Christian Eriksen, found a teammate 24 times after coming on.
This was of course only a single game and therefore a small sample size. It’s also a fairly extreme example, but since the start of last season there have been 10 instances of McTominay playing at least 45 minutes in a Premier League match and failing to even complete 25 passes. Over the same period, he’s averaged 50.0 touches per game; obviously, none of this is inherently “bad”, it depends on the context of the team and the manager’s setup. However, Casemiro (77.4 touches per 90), Eriksen (74.3), Bruno Fernandes (71.3) and even Fred (77.4 before his departure) have seen so much more of the ball.
McTominay does work hard, ranking higher than any other Man Utd player (minimum 500 minutes played) for duels contested (13.8) and duels won (7.0) per 90 minutes in the Premier League since last August, but United can’t afford to have a central midfielder who’s a passenger in possession if one of their chief objectives is to control the tempo of the game.
Furthermore, this season he’s averaged just one pass under pressure every nine minutes and 55 seconds; of United players to feature for at least 120 minutes this term, only Rasmus Højlund (11 minutes, 21 seconds) is pressured less often. Some sections of the United fanbase have accused McTominay of “hiding”; while that seems a little harsh and difficult to prove, his averages for passes under pressure, touches and successful passes certainly don’t paint a picture of a player able to be a consistent influential presence in midfield.
Of course, for Steve Clarke’s Scotland, McTominay does play further forward. While he has also featured effectively as part of a back three for his national team, in more recent times there’s undoubtedly been a greater emphasis on getting him into the opposition’s penalty area. With Billy Gilmour and Callum McGregor able to sit deep, McTominay and John McGinn are encouraged to join the attack.
His international goals tally does come with the caveat that, although he netted twice against Spain, the other four he scored were against Cyprus (three) and Georgia. But it’s a nice habit to get into and proof of him possessing good awareness around the area, with all six scored within the 18-yard box.
McTominay has very occasionally been used in a more offensive role by Erik ten Hag, and the late show against Brentford is evidence of how effective he can be in the danger zone. But let’s not get carried away; before the Brentford win, McTominay had scored one Premier League goal since December 2021, and it’s not like United’s most advanced midfielder is a no-mark – as long as Fernandes is played as the number 10, opportunities are likely to remain sporadic or limited to late cameos when chasing a late equaliser or winner… or both.
By extension, until United stop considering McTominay a bona fide defensive or central midfielder, we’ll never conclusively work out how good he really is, and he’ll remain a polarising topic of debate.