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Tactical Analysis: The Scott McTominay conundrum

Scott McTominay is keeping Manchester United afloat but he’s also holding them back from taking a step forward

Manchester United v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It’s safe to say that Erik Ten Hag would not be in a job right now if it wasn’t for Scott McTominay. Without McTominay’s goals, United would be at least six points worse off in the table and it can be argued that the total could even be as high as eight.

McTominay is now one of the first names on Erik Ten Hag’s team sheet every match. It’s a huge change in status for McTominay who United nearly sold this past summer, though it wouldn’t be the first time in recent history a United manager has held onto his job longer thanks to the goal-scoring of a player who tried to sell over the summer.

Ten Hag has realized what makes McTominay dangerous and leaned into those abilities. His best quality is his ability to make late runs into the box and get on the end of chances, which has been further encouraged by Ten Hag this season after a sensational Euro 2024 qualifying campaign for Scotland.

With McTominay being one of the few in-form players for United this season, Ten Hag has essentially rebuilt his attack around the Scot. The result has been McTominay having the best goal-scoring season of his career - and we’re not even halfway through December - while United continue to fall more and more into disarray.

McTominay’s is akin to the Palladium core that composed the miniature arc reactor that kept Tony Stark alive when he first became Iron Man but also turned out to be poisonous. As J.A.R.V.I.S. says in Iron Man 2, “It would appear that the very thing keeping you alive is also killing you, sir.”

It’s never simple when it comes to McTominay. Most of that comes from the fact that no one really knows what his position is.

McTominay has the physique of a traditional defensive midfielder, and because of that, he’s often been typecasted in that role. McTominay is not a number 6 as he doesn’t have the defensive positioning, spatial awareness, or passing ability to play there. That leaves a box to box number 8, but his limited passing ability makes him a liability in the buildup. He’s at his best in and around the box but he’s not creative enough to be a number 10 for a Champions League-level team, and most importantly, his ability in the box is best when he’s making late runs into the box.

When you’re dealing with that many caveats, where do you play that player?

Erik Ten Hag has chosen central midfield. Sort of.

Out of possession, McTominay plays alongside Sofyan Amrabat or Kobbie Mainoo in the base of a 4-2-3-1 that can also be a 4-4-2.

When United gets possession of the ball, McTominay pushes high up the pitch, creating a 4-3-3 shape and crucially getting him out of United’s buildup.

After the Chelsea match, Ten Hag spoke about how he’s re-tinkered the attack around McTominay and where he wants McTominay to be.

This is where United started running into problems. With McTominay pushing up the pitch, it often stretches out the midfield, creating big caps between the two numbers 8’s and the deeper Amrabat. This not only creates problems in the buildup as there aren’t many passing options...

...but leaves United vulnerable to counterattacks. Following his side’s 3-0 win at Old Trafford Bournemouth Andoni Iraola made comments about how Bournemouth knew they would get opportunities in transition due to how United play with their midfield.

Ten Hag is not oblivious to this. He spoke about it after the Chelsea match as well.

The result is we’re now often seeing Bruno Fernandes playing either as the deepest midfielder in possession or along the same line as United’s other holding midfielder.

The numbers reflect this change in position. Over the last four games in all competitions, 49.14 percent of Bruno’s touches have come in the middle third of the pitch compared to just 40.42 percent in the previous 17 Premier League and Champions League matches. He’s also been handling the bulk of United’s progression. Over the last four games, Fernandes has 44 progressive passes, 19 more than the next-best United player (Antony). Against Newcastle, he had 13 progressive passes, no other United player had more than three.

Naturally, we’re seeing the opposite with McTominay. Over the last four games, 39.49 percent of his touches have come in the attacking third compared to just 17.92 percent in the previous 17. McTominay has taken 34 shots in the Premier League and Champions League this season with 19 of them (55.88%) coming in three of the last four games (he didn’t have any shots against Newcastle).

McTominay is “thriving.” He’s scored three of United’s last five goals and has scored nearly a third of the club’s total non-penalty goals in the Premier League this season.

Essentially, McTominay is now playing as the number 10 in possession, with Bruno Fernandes dropping to the number 8, while the two swap back when United don’t have the ball.

If that sounds like a bad idea, it has been. United are essentially having their only creative player operate further away from goal while making him do a lot more defending - something he’s not particularly good at. The result has been United creating very little in attack, a record of one win, one draw, and two losses over the last four games, and just five goals scored against eight goals conceded.

McTominay is simply not good enough on the ball to be the furthest midfielder forward. Despite his goal-scoring, United’s xG is nearly a quarter of a goal higher when McTominay hasn’t been on the pitch this year. When he’s out, they take 2.45 more shots per 90 than when he’s out there.

Against Bournemouth, United had 68 percent of possession and turned that into 16 open play shots for a paltry 1.03 xG - a pathetic 0.06 xG per shot. While that’s an extremely low figure it’s in line with what United have been doing this season. Only the league’s three newly promoted sides have a lower open play xG per shot than United this season.

A lot of this comes from the fact that Bruno Fernandes continues to be United’s sole chance creator, only now he has to do this from much deeper on the pitch. This obviously will lead to lower quality chances created. Bruno’s open play xA per 90 has fallen by 0.19 this season compared to last.

Pushing McTominay further forward creates a front four of un-creative players.

Antony has never been a winger who likes to cut inside and shoot rather than a creative one. He’s shooting way less this season, but there’s been no rise in creativity.

On the other side, Alejandro Garnacho has become a progressive carry and box entry monster but isn’t following those actions up with any production. He only has one shot assist for Rasmus Hojlund in the Premier League and Champions League combined, His 1.85 key passes per 90 leaves him well off the league leaders. Four of his shot assists have been for defenders, with another four being for McTominay. That three of those McTominay shot assists have come in the last two games is further indicative of McTominay's rising role of late.

The manager shares some blame in this regard too. Ten Hag’s system has the wingers staying very wide while the fullbacks charge up the middle attacking the dangerous spaces.

Against Bournemouth Bruno playing through balls into the box for Sergio Reguilon was a reoccurring pattern though it never amounted to anything.

This setup tasks the fullbacks with handling the bulk of United’s creativity, but United don’t really have very creative fullbacks and their best one is now being deployed as a center back.

The lack of attacking players takes a toll on United. In six of United’s last eight matches they’ve had spells where they’ve gone 20 or more minutes without creating shots. Against both Everton and Newcastle, the two shots they took in the first 13 minutes of each match were the only shots they had in the entire first half.

That’s the thing about building your attack around Scott McTominay. Once in a blue moon, you’re going to get a match like Chelsea where everything clicks and he carries you to a win. A lot more often that’s not going to happen. Only now, the rest of the players are sacrificing their strengths to play for McTominay. If McTominay isn’t clicking, his teammates aren’t in position to succeed themselves and overcome that. It’s having a residual effect through the squad - not to mention the flip-flopping of positions with Bruno in and out of possession, United’s xGA also rises when McTominay is on the pitch.

As United’s attack continues to rely more and more on McTominay, it’s fair to start asking questions about precisely what his instructions are in any given match. More specifically, when he’s being told to push up the pitch.

In recent matches, it’s been more and more common to see McTominay playing along the last line of the defense, level, or even further forward to United’s striker.

While taking McTominay out of United’s buildup play is a good thing, if you don’t replace him with someone else then United is still a man down in buildup, which increases the likelihood of losing the ball, and losing the ball is now more dangerous because your central midfielder is so high up the pitch.

But more than the liability it may create defensively, pushing McTominay up the pitch early shows a complete lack of understanding of what’s been making him so good. This is the same reason the suggestions for him to play as a striker are asinine.

As has been noted several times, McTominay thrives on making late-arriving runs into the box to get on the end of chances. He often does this with either late runs into the box,

Or by taking advantage of mismatches. Either against a fullback or floating around between the fullbacks and midfielders.

All of these chances are created because there’s someone else occupying the center backs, taking up their attention and making them move. The first goal against Chelsea was a great example of this.

The play starts with Bruno at the top of the box. United have Harry Maguire and Rasmus Hojlund at the top of the box occupying three Chelsea defenders while Antony is lurking wide.

Bruno playing a through ball into the box for Garnacho allows space for Maguire and Hojlund to make runs. When Hojlund makes his run, Cucarella has to back up with him. Crucially Antony making a run from wide forces the fullback Levi Colwill to have to retreat as well.

All this motion leaves McTominay wide open in a great space to shoot should the ball come to him.

A similar situation could be found on the second goal. This time it’s not a late run, United are queuing up in the box for a cross. Crucially, look who’s there.

Sergio Reguilon is at the near post, occupying center back Axel Diasi. Bruno Fernandes is making a run towards the near post ensuring Diasi will be busy. In the middle of the goal is striker Rasmus Hojlund, making sure Thiago Silva has his hands full.

That leaves McTominay at the back post getting to go up against fullback Reece James. McTominay is always going to have the advantage there.

When McTominay pushes up the pitch early - or if he were to line up as the striker - it would completely change the dynamic here. Rather than having a player like Hojlund occupying the center back and moving the defensive line, McTominay would become the man occupying the center back. It changes McTominay from being a secondary threat to the primary threat, ensuring that not only is he marked but that it’s a much tougher matchup for him.

This sequence against Bournemouth is a good illustration of what United would lose should they push McTominay further forward, because, well he was further forward.

Garnacho has the ball at the edge of the box looking to cross. In the middle, you have the striker Anthony Martial marked by one center-back. Right behind him is McTominay, marked by another. At the back post is Harry Maguire getting the favorable matchup.

Garnacho does the right thing and plays the crossover to Maguire. Maguire easily wins the header and puts it right back in the middle towards McTominay, only McTominay has both a center back and central midfielder marking him. It’s a very tough task for him to win this ball.

Meanwhile, Martial and McTominay’s runs have done enough to occupy and push the defensive line back, leaving a nice open space for someone to make a late-arriving run into the box. The problem is, United’s best player at making said runs, is now the one creating the space for the run. The ball finds the dangerous space, but Bournemouth can easily clear the danger.

When McTominay pushes forward too early, it negates the strengths that he’s in the team for and he doesn’t have the ability to offer anything else. Building a game plan around McTominay essentially being your number 10 lowers the ceiling of what your team can do.

McTominay is adept at performing this role in the Premier League, but his limitations confine his effectiveness to a team lower down in the table. For a team aspiring to secure a spot in the Champions League, a player with broader capabilities is imperative.

Currently, Erik Ten Hag places significant value on McTominay’s specific skill set, making him the focal point of United’s attack. While McTominay isn’t solely responsible for United’s midtable standing in various attacking metrics, his role remains a significant contributing factor.

McTominay is thriving right now because of course he is. The system is built for him to succeed, but that’s coming at the expense of everyone else. Sometimes he bails you out. Most of the time he doesn’t.

As Thierry Henry said, When your poison is your medicine, you will struggle. J.A.R.V.I.S. agrees.