When you think of Manchester United’s greatest academy products, names like George Best, Bobby Charlton, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes inevitably come to mind – players famed for their technical talent and illustrious flair.
But there is a far less glamorous category of youth setup graduates too; Gary Neville, Phil Neville, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher were never the most naturally gifted of footballers, yet a relentless desire to win and a willingness to function as part of a team not only saw them become important parts of trophy-clinching United sides, but also improve exponentially as individuals over time.
Scott McTominay, one of the latest United youngsters to force his way into the first-team picture, undoubtedly belongs in the latter bracket. He’s not exceptional on the ball, he doesn’t offer the dynamic positivity of someone like Marcus Rashford and he probably isn’t a world-beating midfielder in the making.
Very unusually for a young player on the fringes of the senior squad at a club of United’s stature, he’s not been capped by England or Scotland at any age group to date.
And yet, it’s already clear why the 20-year-old has taken Jose Mourinho’s fancy. He measures in at a towering 6 foot 4 and in the absence of Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini, he’s given United the power in midfield Mourinho craves.
What’s more, he’s shown he can undertake a simple task well; McTominay was never going to produce an expansive performance against Benfica last night, but he did win the second-most tackles, interceptions and aerial duels of any United player.
That was clearly a key influence on United claiming another clean sheet in the Champions League, something that Mourinho will expect his side to draw confidence from when they travel to Stamford Bridge on Sunday, but McTominay was economical on the ball as well. Only Nemanja Matic bettered his 65 passes and no United player completed more dribbles. It wasn’t a stunning midfield performance – tellingly enough, McTominay failed to create a single chance – but if the youngster’s job was to protect the defence and keep possession, then he carried it out exceptionally well.
And the more McTominay shows he can be trusted to undertake those kinds of tasks, the more chances he’ll get to gain experience, learn about the game and hone his technical skills against high-quality players. In some cases, that can be more important than natural talent – just ask Gary Neville. The Sky Sports pundit was never the most gifted of players but hard work and accumulated experience saw him eventually become one of the best right-backs in the world.
McTominay certainly has a long way to go before he can contend for that kind of reputation in central midfield, but the good news is that Mourinho appears uncharacteristically willing to give the young starlet first-team chances.