You’d like to think that Scott McTominay would have preferred his Manchester United first team breakthrough to have come under different circumstances.
The young midfielder’s starting lineup odyssey under Jose Mourinho has come thanks to a power struggle; the manager’s feud with record signing Paul Pogba has precipitated a shake-up on the teamsheet. McTominay has been the main beneficiary of this, but it’s hard to shake the thought that he’s only partnering Nemanja Matic because his manager is trying to prove a point.
Paul Pogba isn’t a defensive midfielder. But then in Mourinho’s mind, isn’t every player a defensive player? Bizarrely for a manager with such a plethora of attacking riches, the Manchester United manager seems intent on defensive caution first and foremost: every man to his post, and with the barracks secured only then will it be time to give the ball to Pogba and Alexis Sanchez to attack.
And when they do attack, it won’t be with any sort of concerted plan with the aim of tearing the opposition to shreds. It’s every man for himself, relying not on the drills most sides perfect in training, but on the ingenuity of tens of millions of pounds’ worth of talent. “You’re the footballer,” you can hear Mourinho sigh, “how can I tell you what to do?”
Thanks to the Portuguese coach’s too firm handling of the rare birds at his disposal, they now appear to feel caged and demoralised. McTominay, meanwhile, has been drafted into the team essentially on the basis that he proves a point: he’s nowhere near as talented as Paul Pogba, but he follows orders to the letter in a way that the Frenchman supposedly doesn’t. In Mourinho’s book, this is as important as any skill the youngster may or may not have.
But United have always had such players and they’ve always been valued. Darren Fletcher and Ji-Sung Park are the most obvious examples of the less talented United midfielders who stepped into big games and performed a very specific role. Those two never let Alex Ferguson down and aided their side on some huge occasions. They were both fine footballers, too, but alongside the natural talent of a Pogba both would be closer to the McTominay mould. Their lack of shiny gilding only made them more valuable to the team as a whole in the biggest games.
Like them, McTominay is a tidy footballer, and just like Pogba he has a lineage of greats to follow in – it may not be Scholes and Giggs, but he has idols to look up to. Perhaps that’s why Monday night’s game should be considered an important one him if he once again gets the nod to play.
It is ten months since the 21-year-old made his first start as a United player, and that was in a game against Crystal Palace at the end of last season.
Sure, Mourinho’s United didn’t care about the result against Sam Allardyce’s already-safe Palace on the final day of last season. Indeed, one of the goalscorers that day, Josh Harrop, played his first every game for the first team, scored his first ever goal and was shipped out to Preston North End before he could add to those tallies. That shows just how much Mourinho cared – he wasn’t even in the mood to use it to assess the kids.
McTominay, however, has found himself in a position of some fortune. By Christmas he was in the team and he hasn’t left the setup since then, featuring in 11 games since early December. He’s taking his chance purely by being reliable and not flash.
That might not be the exciting young talent that fans can get excited about when they brag about their team to rival fans, but it’s important. And coming up against Palace – the team against whom it all began for the young Scot – there should be a feeling that he’s an established Manchester United player now, no longer the youngster hoping to break through. Maybe he’s no longer in the team just to prove a point.
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