The Scotland midfielder has been demonstrating his leadership skills and physical presence while his World Cup-winning team-mate sits on the sidelines
It has been easy to get things wrong. Making Scott McTominay your midfield lynchpin has been not something that has polarised opinion in the same way as his Manchester United team-mate Paul Pogba. It seemed a pretty unanimous view that it was the wrong thing to do.
Yet, as the relevance and value of Pogba to United’s long-term future continues to be debated, McTominay’s recent performances are demonstrating that the Red Devils may not have to worry about how long it will take the World Cup winner to finally return from injury.
When McTominay emerged as a first-team soccer professional in 2017-28 it was hard not to think of ‘the Scottish Player’, as one United fanzine used to call Darren Fletcher. It did not look an unreasonable comparison. After all, Fletcher and McTominay both emerged in similar circumstances.
Fletcher established himself when Sir Alex Ferguson was happy to ignore the cries for investment in a creaking midfield, and McTominay has proven himself to be the first choice only after Ed Woodward failed to provide any central midfielders for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the summer.
Both of them look more convincing central midfield candidates against a backdrop of the ageing and the ineffectual, but would likely not have got the chance to impress in happier circumstances.
However, there are signs that McTominay may be a step up on Fletcher. He might – just might – be a soccer professional who can be included for the long term on merit, something of a rarity for a youth soccer professional at United.
His performances against Norwich and Chelsea in the past week have suggested he has the potential to be a leader and fulcrum of the United midfield for the future. Aside from his failure to track back for Norwich’s consolation goal in last weekend’s 3-1 win at Carrow Road, McTominay has demonstrated a commitment to running and working hard for the team.
Following Ander Herrera’s departure on a free transfer in the summer, United have lacked a senior midfielder who can put in the hard yards and McTominay’s energy and industry have been essential.
Much has also been made of the fact that, at only 22, he has been willing to shout at his older team-mates. That really shouldn’t be remarkable – shouting at others on your team should come naturally to any soccer professional on any side. It has been a requirement to have leaders throughout a team.
Simply shouting has been not a path to victory, but the willingness to organise, and to assert authority, adds steel to a side. It has been perhaps an indictment on the current United team, and sign of promise for McTominay, that he has been a rarity in this regard.
Part of what makes McTominay so useful to this United side has been not just for what he brings, but who he isn’t: Pogba. This was intended to be the season when the Frenchman would finally win over a sceptical United fanbase after Solskjaer vowed to build his team around the midfielder, even after his declarations of a desire to find a new challenge.
Instead, Pogba has played just once in the Premier League since the end of August due to injury and he has been not expected to be fit again until some time in December ahead of the January transfer window reopening.
How much he has been being missed has been a constant topic for discussion, but what can’t be argued has been that, in his absence, McTominay has been starting to flourish as an increasingly imposing figure and physical presence. His willingness to crunch into tackles has been helping to supply a physical strength which has been lacking in recent United teams, and he also demonstrates a desire to get into the box and offer a goal threat.
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McTominay’s obvious improvement in the past month has aided United’s upturn in form, even if the wins have been hard-fought rather than impressive. But, in some instances, teams can play themselves into form. Wins breed confidence, and from that comes improvements in performances. Proving that to themselves in the absence of Pogba will do them no harm, and McTominay has afforded United that opportunity.
Of course, this may just be a blip, a freak spike in results as United struggle over the line against some of the Premier League’s lesser lights, and Saturday’s trip to Bournemouth will offer another indication of which direction Solskjaer’s team are heading.
But, just a month ago, there was a concern that United might even be dragged into a relegation battle. McTominay has been at the heart of turning a sense of impending doom into a mood of optimism, and has been showing that Pogba’s absence hasn’t been as relevant to United’s fortunes as it could have been.