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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Scott McTominay is having his limits exposed

McTominay’s strengths currently don’t suit this improved United team, and he needs to improve quickly

Crystal Palace v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

While sitting at an outdoor pub prior to Manchester United’s match against Southampton someone asked me “do you think United have benefitted from not having fans in the stands?”

I do think it helps, mainly because I think the smaller clubs feed on their crowds’ energy — especially when playing teams like United — and without those crowds they just don’t have that energy.

But that wasn’t the point this person was trying to make. He was saying that when United take a while to get into a game, the Old Trafford crowd can get restless and even start to turn on the team. That can make things more difficult, especially for a young squad. Not having a crowd at Old Trafford has given this team more time to settle into the game and they’ve been far more lethal.

It’s a valid point, even if the Old Trafford crowd is not as fickle as some grounds, and even if the fans in the stands aren’t as volatile as the vocal ones online. But many clubs have this problem; the world has trended towards Hot Takes. Most of us, including myself, are guilty of this.

The internet, whether it be blogs, message boards, or Twitter, has made football fans far more toxic. Everything has become black and white. Come out and say “player x is better than player y” and people will read that as you saying “player y is crap.” We’ve lost all our nuance.

After the Southampton match I saw this thread talking about Bruno Fernandes’ game. Two points really stood out to me.

“We mustn’t be afraid to point out the flaws in players’ games.”

“Even the best can always improve on something.”

Too often if you talk about a certain player’s flaws you’ll be accused of hating the player. Or people will respond that “you’re ignoring all the amazing things he’s done,” as if you should have to list off all of a player’s accolades before criticizing him.

This is a long winded way of saying: I’m going to talk about Scott McTominay again. I did that once this year, and I can honestly say that article really holds up. The things I wrote in December are — annoyingly — still true in July.

I’m not here to rehash that article. Today we’re going to discuss McTominay’s role in the squad, what he brings to the team, and what he takes away from the team.

I’ve always said that McTominay is ultimately a squad player. He’s very useful in certain games, and very not useful in others. Use him in the wrong game and it could be a big problem. Leaving him out of the wrong game could be equally as bad.

Unfortunately, the more I watch this United team evolve, and the more I watch McTominay, I struggle to see where he fits into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s system in the long-term.

McTominay is an imposing, physical midfield presence, and he does a very good job of establishing that presence. It doesn’t take long for you to know he’s there, even if nothing really comes of his actions.

He’s not going to let you push him, or his teammates, around. He’s a fantastic disruptor, as this sequence from Thursday night shows. With Crystal Palace looking to counter, McTominay gets back and is able to commit a tactical foul that crucially doesn’t land him in the book and allows United to get back on defense.

Simply put, McTominay doesn’t let opposing teams do what they want to do, and that makes him a tremendous player in matches where United don’t have a lot of the ball. The problem is what happens when “what they want to do” is “let United have the ball.” That’s when McTominay’s on the ball skills get exposed.

The numbers back up that claim too. When McTominay is in the starting XI and United have 55% or more of the possession this year, United pick up 1 point per match. When he’s not in the team that number rises to 2.3 points per game. On the flip side, when United have less of the ball, they’re picking up 2.36 points per match with McTominay in the team compared to 1.5 without him.

Points per match on its own is a really bad way of judging a player. There’s so much else that factors in to average results: who else is on the pitch, who the team is playing, etc. But interestingly, when paired with McTominay, everyone’s numbers seem to go down.

There is a Bruno Fernandes effect to take into account as well. Since Bruno has arrived United are scoring a lot more and conceding less, which makes the players who have played with him the most (Fred, Nemanja Matić, Paul Pogba) look better.

But for some reason when Bruno is on the pitch at the same time as McTominay the scoring dries up, and the creativity drops off as well.

No matter how you shake up the numbers, when McTominay is on the pitch United are a less potent side. Why is that?

On an individual level, McTominay looks to have better numbers than Matić.

So why does the team score so much more when Matić is on the pitch? Why do they concede far fewer chances? What is McTominay doing — or rather, what isn’t he doing?

McTominay isn’t a visibly bad player. When you watch Andreas Pereira or Jesse Lingard, for example, you constantly see misplaced first touches and giveaways.

McTominay is very composed on the ball and rarely tries anything fancy. Therefore, things that to the naked eye don’t look like problems can be the same things that are holding back United’s attack.

One of the biggest examples of that is the time McTominay takes on the ball. Solskjaer has been clear about the style he wants his team to play all season: Be bold on the ball, and be quick with it. This is especially true when facing a well organized team.

To break down tight defenses you need to move the ball quickly. You need to pass it between the lines. This is where McTominay struggles. McTominay loves a square ball, usually on the ground.

Playing passes like this doesn’t move defenses around. In fact, they give them more time to adjust and get themselves set.

This pass out to Shaw looks good, but it takes so long to get there that when it finally does, United’s break is over as Watford have had time to get set on defense.

Just look at it from the opposite perspective. Wilfried Zaha is running at United’s defense. Given Harry Maguire’s weakness against quick forwards, this could be very dangerous for United. But Zaha plays a ball out wide and as the ball is rolling to his teammate United have time to track back and regroup. Chance over.

McTominay takes entirely too long on the ball, and often just plays a simple ball out wide when he’s ready to pass it. It often ends up coming right back to him.

It’s like passing just for the sake of passing. McTominay struggles at progressing the ball up the field. Before the lockdown, he was averaging 3.78 progressive passes per 90 (Matić was averaging 5.82 — interesting how Matic’s form has gotten better but that number has gone down), since the lockdown he’s pulled that up to 4.48, in large part because teams are practically begging McTominay to have the ball.

Just look at how Palace are focused on making sure Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes are completely covered.

They couldn’t care less when McTominay has the ball.

This also helps explain why Pogba and Bruno’s numbers go down when they play with McTominay. If teams are letting McTominay be, they have an extra defender to mark Pogba/Bruno.

Another reason for his struggles is that McTominay rarely takes the ball on the half turn or turns with the ball. That means he often simply plays the way he’s facing. Safe, but not very effective.

Playing this ball straight back to David de Gea does absolutely nothing. As Paul Pogba showed us the other night, being careless in front of your goal can have disastrous consequences. But if you want to play out from the back, and Solskjaer does, you need to have the ability to turn up the field, as Pogba demonstrated later in the match.

McTominay struggles to turn on the ball even when he’s in space, leading to more safe passes.

As soon as McTominay gets this ball, Mason Greenwood breaks to the middle of the pitch, but McTominay never even turns and looks at him, despite not being under any pressure. At one point he could have played a pass straight through the line to Greenwood.

It’s not the easiest of passes, but he just needs to get it in the general area. More importantly, it’s important for the ball to just be attempted. If forwards feel like the pass isn’t going to be made, then they stop making runs altogether. If they stop making runs altogether, the attack gets static and it becomes even harder to break a team down.

Here Pogba wins the ball back and plays it quickly to McTominay. Winning possession off a turnover is a chance to hit Palace before they can get organized. Instead McTominay plays it backwards first time. There’s certainly a value to sometimes pulling up, holding the ball, and settling things down amidst chaos, but this wasn’t it. Too often McTominay doesn’t have a knack for knowing when that time is.

That’s a worry. McTominay makes a lot of mental mistakes.

Since the lockdown, United have been running rampant against teams by switching to a back three and a front five when in possession. The key to that is a midfielder splitting the center backs to form a back three.

Here, United begin launching an attack but McTominay never drops back. As a result, the fullbacks can’t push up and United don’t have any passing options.

I didn’t rush to blame McTominay for this. Perhaps Solskjaer doesn’t want to play this way with McTominay in there instead of Matić. It could just be with the right-footed Timothy Fosu-Mensah replacing the left-footed Luke Shaw that Solskjaer can’t have both his fullbacks bombing forward. I can’t tell you the answer to that.

It could also be that he doesn’t trust McTominay to play this way. Towards the end of the Villa match McTominay either wasn’t very disciplined in staying in the back three...

Or he was dropping back when Fred had already done so, creating a back four again and completely missing the point of playing this way.

You can say that McTominay hasn’t gotten enough minutes since the lockdown to really settle into the role, but Fred has gotten even fewer minutes post lockdown and those same movements already look like they’re second nature to him.

These are little things that don’t matter when you’re seeing out a 3-0 game, but they add up. You ever hear the phrase “you play the way you practice?” If the manager can’t trust you to get it right when you’re 3-0 up how can he trust you to get it right when the score is level?

However, a few minutes later McTominay does drop back to form a back three, but only after being told by Harry Maguire.

After the first drinks break — during which the coaches had a chance to speak with their players — McTominay came back a new man. Right away he was dropping deep to create a back three.

And then he started passing forward, between the lines!

Look at everything that he does here. He turns on the ball, he doesn’t pass just for the sake of passing, and he’s patient with the ball.

United’s first goal comes from a very similar sequence. McTominay doesn’t rush things, he’s patient. He realizes Palace aren’t closing him down and he can look up. Eventually he spots the run of Bruno and plays him in beautifully.

There’s a difference between being too slow on the ball and being patient on the ball. It’s something Nemanja Matić is exceptionally good at. You don’t need to pass it for the sake of passing, When you’re trying to catch a defense out you need to be quick, but other times holding on to the ball for an extra second can help create that pass.

The timing — knowing when you have to play quick, knowing when to be patient — is what McTominay needs to develop. Unfortunately that’s a skill that isn’t really taught. It’s more instinctual. McTominay’s instincts don’t seem to be good. All season long Solskjaer has been preaching about always looking to push the ball forward; it shouldn’t take until a water break 23 minutes into the 36th league game of the season for McTominay to start getting into the right position or start looking to pass forward.

Unfortunately, after halftime the McTominay that started the game came back out. He stopped dropping in between the center backs.

And he became too eager to play safe.

McTominay made seven progressive passes in the match, all in the first half. He made three line breaking passes, also all in the first half. When he came off after 63 minutes United had nine shots for an xG of 1.00. Over the next 27 minutes United took eight shots for an xG of 0.90... nearly the same output in half the time. Same story all season. United seem better when McTominay is off the pitch.

It didn’t take Matić long to show us the results of playing the ball quickly — even if your initial pass doesn’t connect, you give the forwards a chance to press, win the ball back, and go on a break.

His gritty defending later would launch another attack.

At the end of last season McTominay’s effort and passion really stood out in a team where most players lacked effort and passion. At the start of this season, with a younger squad still settling in, his effort and passion continued to shine through. That fire was instrumental in helping United overcome a talent deficiency in the first half of the season.

It’s easy to look back on McTominay’s first half of the season with rose-colored glasses after outstanding performances against Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. But he then followed those up with poor performances against Everton and Watford. Two steps forward, two steps back. At the start of the season he and Fred were so poor at progressing the ball that Solskjaer devised a game plan for United’s defenders to completely bypass the midfield against Liverpool.

But the team that McTominay returned to from injury pre-lockdown was a far different team then the one he was playing in when got injured on Boxing Day. Since McTominay’s injury, Ashley Young had departed. Harry Maguire was named captain and became a massive leadership presence. Bruno Fernandes and his large personality and leadership joined the squad. Marcus Rashford had come into his own as a leader. Even Anthony Martial, whose attitude and effort levels had previously been questioned, was now running around leading United’s press and providing tons of energy.

This is no longer a team with an attitude problem. It’s no longer a team with a passion problem. That void that McTominay was filling no longer exists.

On a technical level the team is far more talented than they were in December. They no longer need passion and energy to mask a lack of talent. Rather, now that the energy and talent is there, the gap between the top players and McTominay stands out even more.

That’s especially true when his passion ends up hurting United.

It’s also important to remember, passion is certainly good, but if it’s not controlled it could do more harm than good. Here McTominay’s eagerness to press Tottenham drags him out of position, and when he doesn’t get there in time it allows Spurs to go right through United’s midfield for their first chance of the match.

In the second half McTominay goes in hard to a challenge and “wins” the ball, but he wins it right to Giovani Lo Celso. The rashness of his challenge takes him out of the play and opens the pitch up for a Tottenham break.

That’s another thing you need to use your head for — when is it better to go in for a challenge and when is it better to just continue to be in an attacking player’s way. This is another mental/instinctual thing, but it’s something that needs to be developed.

For McTominay it’s not just the physical attributes on the ball that he needs to (continue to) improve on, but the mental side too, and the pace of that development is starting to get worrying. Anthony Martial has learned his new position over the course of the season. Mason Greenwood came back from lockdown a completely different and more advanced player. McTominay is... still McTominay.

This United team has been evolving all season. Since the lockdown that evolution has happened at an even faster rate. Adding players like Jadon Sancho or Jack Grealish this summer will only further speed up that evolution. For McTominay, he needs to get on the same level as the rest of the team quickly. If he doesn’t, before you know it this team will be too good for him.