It’s often argued that Jose Mourinho doesn’t adequately develop young players, or at the very least possesses a disinterest in doing so, and recent evidence is hard to dispute. While Paul Pogba continues to struggle to produce his most dazzling form for Manchester United, Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah are the driving forces behind the teams either side of the Red Devils in the Premier League table. Both though, just couldn’t find a way into Mourinho’s starting XI at Chelsea during their younger years and enjoyed their comings of age elsewhere.
But considering what we know about Mourinho and his philosophy, that’s not much of a surprise. The Portuguese implores physicality and athleticism in all departments – even the wingers require the fitness to do more than their usual fair share of tracking back – but young players just aren’t fully developed physically and can’t always cope with that kind of burden.
Likewise, considering the emphasis Mourinho places on beating key rivals by ensuring his side makes the least mistakes in fine-margins encounters, a simplistic and functional game is essential. Most young players who break through to the first team, however, do so because they’re intuitive players with the confidence and ability to take risks on the ball. That’s just not what Mourinho is about and in those instances – particularly De Bruyne, Salah and Pogba’s – a change in mindset is required before they truly fit into a Mourinho team.
Every now and then though, there are inevitable exceptions to the rule – and that’s exactly what Manchester United academy product Scott McTominay is. The 21-year-old, who has now made 16 first team appearances since breaking into the senior squad at the end of last season, may well be the first ever perfect Mourinho youngster we’ve seen during the Portuguese’s time in the Premier League.
The obvious difference between McTominay and the likes of De Bruyne and Salah is that the Lancaster-born youngster’s already a formidable physical specimen. He measures in at an imposing 6 foot 4 but possesses the natural width and power to match it as well, rather than the lightweight lankiness you might expect of a player so young. That instantly makes McTominay a more appealing option for Mourinho than many of United’s other academy products, simply because he won’t be out-muscled or outfought by the Premier League’s many physically imperious stars.
But Mourinho will be impressed with the simplicity to McTominay’s game as well, and how that allows him to slot into the starting XI without disrupting the balance of the team – which is precisely why he’s started ahead of the positionally ill-disciplined Pogba during United’s last two games. The youngster deserves praise too, because there is an underlying sense of maturity to his discipline – he runs the hard yards and makes his presence known, but he doesn’t gallop out of position, he doesn’t play beyond his own abilities and he doesn’t suffer from rushes of blood to the head. In short, he doesn’t leave himself or the space he occupies exposed.
Some would argue that’s the sign of a limited game, of a basic player performing a simple job well in a good team without truly excelling. After 16 first-team outings, that may well be true – it’s not as if McTominay has made much of an impact going forward, or taken a game by the scruff of the neck – and it’s still not completely clear how much technical ability he actually possesses. His football has been tidy and economical at best, rather than incisive.
But when you’re playing at the top-end of the Premier League at the age of 21, bizarrely, that doesn’t always matter. Think of players like John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Darren Fletcher, Nicky Butt or even the Neville brothers. None where hugely gifted players technically, but because they were brought into the first team so young, they garnered enough experience and game intelligence to make themselves effective players. Over time, the level of quality they provided naturally improved too. Some of those went on to become United legends, while all won at least five Premier League titles during their time at Old Trafford.
That’s the bracket McTominay – who Transfermarkt value at just £900k – belongs to as well; perhaps United have more natural footballing talents in their academy, but he possesses a crucial mixture of ready-built physicality and the ability to be a functional part of a team.
How far the Englishman goes from here entirely depends on his hunger to learn and improve. But with the perfect on-pitch role model in Nemanja Matic alongside him in the engine room and a manager who clearly trusts him already guiding from the sidelines, McTominay has every chance of developing from the perfect Mourinho youngster into the perfect Mourinho player.