Scott McTominay’s ‘ball-hiding’ limits Manchester United in midfield

On Monday night, Manchester United finally found some shame. Whilst ironic it came at the point where there’s nothing left to play for, better late than never. Even more ironically, we finally decided to use Juan Mata in his preferred number ten role… in his final ever game at Old Trafford for United.

The result was great, the performance was great, and the atmosphere was great. But there was one thing that I noticed from section N4405 that wasn’t so great, and it’s something that hasn’t been great for a few years now. Scott McTominay is a central midfielder who is afraid of the ball. McTominay’s ‘ball hiding’ has been something long-critiqued about his game.

One of the biggest advantages of having Mata in the number ten role against Brentford was his constant willingness to drop in and receive the ball deep, coupled with his incredible ability to retain it under pressure and play progressively. This somewhat negated McTominay’s refusal to consistently show for the ball in the first phase, but it should not be the job of a number ten to be collecting the ball off the centre backs in their own third because one of the midfield pivots won’t.

This has a domino effect on the relative positioning of the entire team when trying to build play. The attacking midfielder dropping deeper into his own half just to get on the ball means that the central striker, as well as the wingers, both have to drop deeper to provide better options. As a result of the number six not showing for the ball, the entire team is forced to drop deeper, which in turn slows down our ability to get from our own third into the final third as well as giving our opponents greater territory.

Despite the fact that it was one of McTominay’s better performing games in relation to the amount of passes he played, it was still obvious that he’s a player that still cannot create angles for his teammates in possession as much as a deeper midfielder should be able to.

He’s a well-loved player amongst the Old Trafford faithful, and it’s easy to see why. He eats, sleeps and breathes Manchester United, came through the academy, works his socks off every game and is constantly heard on the pitch. However, a lot of United fans’ love for him often means they often can’t accept genuine criticisms of his game, which there are no shortage of.

In 2019, he was spoken of as our long-term successor to Nemanja Matic. It has been three years since, and the Serbian still looks several levels ahead of McTominay playing as a number six. The match against Brentford was also Matic’s final United game at Old Trafford, and yet it still felt like he was holding McTominay’s hand in possession. Pretty damning.

Here is one of the first instances of Mctominay’s poor positioning in United’s buildup, just over three minutes into the match. He is positioned in the cover shadow of Ivan Toney, and thus he is inaccessible to Nemanja Matic, who is on the ball. Matic is forced to try and dribble out of pressure himself, initially beating Vitaly Janelt but Janelt tracks back, wins the ball off Matic and this leads to a very dangerous transition for Brentford, that could have been a goal had Diogo Dalot not gotten a key deflection on the cross.

Here is another example of this issue from Monday’s fixture, McTominay once again is positioned in a Brentford player’s cover shadow and removes himself as a passing option as a result, forcing Dalot to go back to David De Gea, who is not ready to receive what ends up being a slightly sloppy pass from Dalot and Manchester United concede what is an easily avoidable corner. McTominay not showing for the ball on Dalot’s side was an issue I noticed often during this game, both from my seat in the stadium and again upon rewatching.

It was only a few minutes later where a similar situation came to fruition, with the midfielder not giving his right-back a viable inside passing option, again forcing him to play a risky pass back to his goalkeeper. United did well to play out in this particular instance, but again, had the Scotsman positioned himself better to provide an option there would have been no need to take such a risk in United’s own third.

To compare McTominay to one of his peers in this game, here is an example from towards the end of the first half where Nemanja Matic sprints from being behind Christian Eriksen to show himself for the ball when it goes back to De Gea, he receives in lots of space and is able to move the ball to Raphaël Varane who is also in space, United build and this leads to Juan Mata getting in behind Brentford’s defence to set up Cristiano Ronaldo, who has a classy finish chalked off by VAR for a marginal offside.

Fred replaced Nemanja Matic in this match and just seconds after entering the pitch, his movement to receive deeper was apparent. The Brazilian is always extremely eager to show himself for the ball and move the team up the pitch. In this example, he shows himself for the ball and plays it to Ronaldo who carries it forwards and wins a corner from a clever outside of the foot cross. From the resulting corner Varane scores United’s third goal of the game. All starting from Fred and his movement to receive and then progress.

McTominay certainly has good qualities and can be a very useful squad player for the club going forward, but he drastically needs to improve his behaviour off the ball when the team holds possession, particularly given that incoming manager Erik Ten Hag primarily plays a very possession-heavy style of football.

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