Manchester United have been crying out for a tempo dictating, ball playing defensive midfielder for a painfully long time.
They’ve tried everything from the ‘Schmidfield’ of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin – horrifyingly dark memories for fans – and even resorted to the idea that Wayne Rooney could romantically transform into the six everyone desired. But of course he couldn’t – he was knackered.
Following those dark, cringe-inducing midfield experiments was the re-signing of Paul Pogba, and the mission to unlock him. A mission that has been going on since 2016 and is yet to be completed.
It’s not hard, guys. Find a ball playing midfielder who can sit in front of defenders, tackle people and ping passes when needed.
But perhaps the issue is right there. United are trying too hard. Of all the candidates they’ve tried and the money they’ve spent, there is a possibility to resolve the issue in-house with Scott McTominay.
McTominay has been a polarising figure among United fans since bursting onto the scene under Jose Mourinho for being absolutely massive. Since then, however, the Scot has developed into a more than competent footballer and the man to turn to in the big games for the Red Devils, providing passion, energy, physicality and a decent ability to dictate play from box to box.
Like it or not, the truth is that there’s a player in McTominay. And a good one at that in the modern game. He rarely misses a beat with superb fitness, and his physical attributes are of an immense advantage over many. While there are still pitfalls to his game in general consistencies, there’s no reason why those can’t be ironed out to fit him into the desired mould.
In order for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to get the best out of his creative midfielders in Pogba and Bruno Fernandes, the logical move would be to switch to a midfield three, with the holding midfielder sitting at the base and dictating the tempo. McTominay has shown the abilities to play the role with training, so it is in United‘s interests to allow him to mould into the role.
His height makes him the ideal candidate in stopping teams playing over United, and his defensive stats suggest he could hold things down in there off the ball. McTominay sits in the 90th percentile for interceptions made and the 86th for blocks. Granted, this has been done in a double pivot and reaching the same numbers when doing the job alone is more difficult, McTominay has shown his quality and adaptability with the Scotland national team and is proving that he can adjust.
Scotland have set up with a three centre back system under Steve Clarke, where McTominay is deployed in the back three more often than not. It’s a difficult role to adapt to and one that requires a high level of ability to not get caught out, but McTominay has impressed in leading the charge with tough tackling and ability to distribute the ball from the back as Scotland work up the pitch.
United must see the work McTominay has done with Scotland and capitalise on it heading into the 2021/22 season. The rumour mill continues to throw their name next to Declan Rice, and while a deal could potentially be struck with the links between West Ham and Jesse Lingard, the truth is that there is little point in pursuing it.
What Rice would bring to United isn’t too far from what McTominay could offer if given the time and coaching to blossom into a holding role behind Pogba and Fernandes. McTominay has shown the ability in big games and has the tools to be coached into the ideal holding midfielder, while Rice would be another big money risk, whereby the reward is unclear.
As well as making use of an already talented player in the squad, converting McTominay into the defensive minded midfielder at the base of the three forces United into necessary tweaks. The money saved could go towards finally getting some important deals over the line and closing the gap to the top of the Premier League, while the switch to a three man midfield immediately gets more out of United’s creative assets and forces them to bring it to the opposition like a top side should.
No, McTominay doesn’t sound like the romantic, beautiful foreign signing that fans ponder for. But he can be just as effective with the right time and training, and United can make use of that next season.