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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Let’s have an honest conversation about Scott McTominay

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McTominay should be an important squad player, but not one of the first names on the team sheet every week

Watford v Manchester United - Premier League - Vicarage Road Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

I am aware that I am about to wade into some very muddy water but it has to be done. I can’t think of any other player in recent memory who generates the type of support and defense from Manchester United supporters that Scott McTominay does.

No matter where you are, whether it be here, Facebook, Twitter, or your local bar, if you criticize Scott McTominay, someone will take offense to it and defend him.

Today we are going to talk about Scott McTominay. We’re going to talk about how Manchester United would be lost this season without him, but also how he’s holding them back.

By now, it’d be almost impossible to find a Manchester United fan that doesn’t love Scott McTominay. We love what he brings to table. He brings an element of physicality to United’s midfield that they haven’t had in quite some time.

McTominay doesn’t shy away from tackles.

And when the physicality ramps up, he knows how to get under his opponents’ skin, and win some free kicks.

He’s always up for a big game, and that’s where he seems to play his best. Even in his first season, he was fantastic against Liverpool. He was great last March in Paris. He completely bossed the midfield in United’s League Cup triumph against Chelsea. He’s shown leadership on the pitch that belies his 23 years of age.

McTominay loves the shirt more than the other 10 players on the pitch combined — it’s a trait that we wish would be passed to the other members of the squad.

However, we shouldn’t let those traits make him out to be superman. He’s not even a week in, week out first choice player. Or at least he shouldn’t be. For as good as McTominay has been against the big clubs, he’s a big part of the reason United struggle against clubs that sit deep.

This isn’t even necessarily McTominay’s fault. United have put a lot on his plate this year, and he isn’t quite suited to handling it.

It starts with his position. A lot of fans misunderstand exactly what McTominay’s role is. They see him lined up as one of two defensive midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 and just assume he’s a defensive midfielder. That’s not quite true.

United’s 4-2-3-1 varies by the match. Against the big boys it either stays very true, or it can even turn into more of a 4-3-3 when United are out of possession, as it did against City. But against everyone, United aren’t playing with two defensive midfielders. When in possession, one of United’s midfielders plays as a number 6, with the other playing the more box-to-box style of a number 8.

A lot of fans have assumed that McTominay plays as the number 6, the more defensive midfielder. He’s not. Prior to his injury, Paul Pogba played as the deeper of the two, with Fred holding down that spot over the past few months. McTominay plays as the number 8, with more freedom to push up the field in possession, and helping out with the press out of possession.

Out of possession, McTominay is a maniac. He snuffs out counter attacks before they start. His contribution in the team’s pressing either leads to him winning the ball back, or forcing the opposition into bad passes that are easily scooped up by Fred. He brings that aforementioned physical presence to the midfield and is showing that he is a legitimate replacement for Ander Herrera.

McTominay plays a very simple game, and that’s what suits him against the top teams. His primary job is to disrupt you. He’s not going to let you do what you want to do.

That simplicity helps United launch their counter attacks. When McTominay does win the ball back, he’s trying to get rid of it as quickly as possible to start the attack. He was excellent at this against Manchester City, and it was exactly how United started the break for their goal against Liverpool.

But what happens when United face teams that want United to have the ball? That’s where problems arise and where McTominay’s shortcomings get exposed.

As the number 8, McTominay doesn’t just have the freedom to get further up the field, he has the responsibility to. He needs to get up there and take on some of the creative responsibilities. This is further exacerbated by United’s complete lack of number 10, but even if they had a good number 10, the number 8 would still have to contribute.

Against teams that are sitting back, you need to play quick. Every team opens up at some point, but well organized teams don’t stay open for more than a few seconds. You need to make them pay in those few seconds.

This is where McTominay’s simple game hurts him. When he tries to play quickly, his (lack of) passing ability really shows. Here he is against Newcastle trying to start a 1-2, but his pass is completely off the mark.

Earlier this year against Partizan it was more of the same. McTominay is completely free, but needlessly turns the ball over just for the sake of playing fast.

McTominay’s decision making in the final third is also questionable at best, a problem for a player that needs to help generate the attack. Early in the first half against Newcastle McTominay rushed into playing a ball into the box. The result was, well...I don’t even know what this was.

Later, he completes a successful 1-2 to break into the box, but picks out a really poor final ball.

McTominay tries to force this ball in to Martial, when he had a wide open Mason Greenwood darting into the box.

McTominay’s passing is painfully poor, and it really hurts United in these matches. Too often this season when United have had a chance to run at teams, the attack comes to an end thanks either a poor pass from McTominay, or because he took so long to get the ball out that the defense recovered.

Here they are against Watford, where United caught the Hornets in transition, but McTominay plays such a slow ball that Luke Shaw has to stop and wait for it. By the time he gets it, Watford have recovered.

Or here against Newcastle. McTominay is in acres of space, but still plays this ball behind Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

There are times where it seems that McTominay either lacks awareness on the pitch or isn’t confident enough in his own ability. That leads to him playing very safe football. Extremely safe football.

Here he is off an early throw in against Newcastle.

United had a deep throw. McTominay isn’t under any pressure but doesn’t even hesitate to play the ball back to Victor Lindelöf. The territory that United had gained to win the deep throw is immediately lost.

Later, he seems to get thrown off by a slightly miss-hit pass from Wan-Bissaka.

McTominay does well to stop the ball, but feels that because he didn’t take it cleanly, he should immediately go back to David De Gea. He doesn’t realize that he has both the time, and space, to turn up field. If he does that, the man marking Wan-Bissaka probably needs to move, and McTominay would be able to get the ball out wide.

Eventually, McTominay’s lack of contribution going forward was recognized by his teammates. Just watch how when United play out from the back here they seemingly go to painful lengths to avoid giving the ball to McTominay.

Right at the beginning Harry Maguire can fire that ball up the middle to McTominay. It’s a ball that United routinely play to Fred, or to Anthony Martial when he drops deep.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. McTominay is noticeably not involved in United’s buildup play and it almost seems like it’s on purpose. Fred has made 95 more passes this year (902-807) despite playing 242 fewer minutes.

McTominay’s risk averse passing has shown up in his buildup play. His xGBuildup/90 is just 0.25, lower than Fred, Pogba, Andreas Pereira, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Luke Shaw, Brandon Williams, Ashley Young, and Jesse Lingard. His 0.31 xGChain per 90 isn’t much better. Basically when McTominay gets involved on the ball, it’s usually when United are recycling possession, and it doesn’t end with them creating a shot.

In the first half against Newcastle on Boxing Day, with a midfield axis of McTominay and Fred, United managed to create nine shots. In the second half, with Paul Pogba replacing McTominay at halftime, they took seven. But six of those came in the first 20 minutes, before Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were replaced by Lingard and Juan Mata. That’s not a coincidence.

It’s also not a coincidence that when McTominay missed two games earlier this year (against Sheffield United and Aston Villa) that United struck five times in those two games. But they also conceded five goals. What United gained in having a more creative player like Pereira in midfield they lost just as much by not having McTominay’s defense.

McTominay is clearly not a bad player, and is important in his own way. There’s give and take.

McTominay has often been compared to former United midfielder Darren Fletcher, and for good reason. It’s not just because they’re both Scottish, but because they both were tough midfielders who had a knack for rising to the occasion in big matches.

Everyone remembers how influential Fletcher was in the 2009 Champions League semi-final against Arsenal. His red card that kept him out of the final was a major loss.

What’s less remembered is that Fletcher wasn’t even in the squad for the second leg of the quarterfinals against Porto. He didn’t make it off the bench in the decisive round of 16 second leg against Inter. He didn’t make the match-day squad for the FA Cup semi-final against Everton and he was left out of several matches down the stretch of United’s title winning season.

Fletcher was a squad player. He played a key role, but Sir Alex Ferguson never let a big game from Fletcher make him forget his limitations.

Another comparison I like to make is that of Nicky Butt. Not in terms of their skills and what they could do on the pitch, but their position in the squad. Was Nicky Butt a great player? Yes. Would you trust him in any match? Of course. But would United have won as much as they did had Butt played more and either Roy Keane or Paul Scholes played less? Probably not.

Scott McTominay should be the first name on the team sheet whenever United are playing the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, or Tottenham. His game is perfectly suited to play against them. That doesn’t mean he should be undroppable against the likes of Watford, Bournemouth, or Newcastle. If he’s fully fit, he should be making 35-36 appearances in the Premier League a season, but he shouldn’t be starting more than 20 of those.

Not having McTominay available for United’s upcoming matches against Arsenal and Manchester City is a massive blow for the club. He’s indispensable in these type of matches. But not having him available for the upcoming matches against Wolves and Norwich?

Well, that may not be the worst thing. Just like Fred emerged when Pogba got hurt, perhaps someone else could show that a different skill set may be what’s needed to break down defensive teams.