How good is Scott McTominay? – Player Analysis

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Throughout the past five to ten years of watching Manchester United, I had thought of myself as one of Scott McTominay‘s biggest fans. The Scotsman is often over-criticized when he doesn’t play well, and under-praised in the big matches where he’s always a central figurehead. But then out of nowhere, at the height of Scott McTominay’s resurgence, a fairly well established Twitter account tweeted about the glory of Scott McTominay, causing quite the stir among the tactics and analytics community.

I won’t go into a scrutinous amount of detail regarding the account holder or even the tweet in general. But the reaction it sparked is perhaps most worthwhile in exploring. In many ways, @EBL2017’s tweet is the kind of sentiment I like to see on Twitter. I want to see accounts heaping praise on players rather than the copious amount of criticism that comes their way, and if actual sound justification can take place to justify the opinion, it’s worth the attention. The problem that I think @EBL2017 ran into more than anything, ignoring the last part of the sentence, which is obviously flawed and not worthy of attention, is the part where he calls McTominay a specialist.

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As we will come to discuss in this article, Scott McTominay is in fact a wonderful player who accomplishes many facets of the game. But his greatest limitation as a footballer will always be his inability to truly crack into one exceptionality within his game. So with that, I analyze just how good Scott McTominay actually is, and whether or not we should be thinking of the Scottsman along the lines of @EBL2017, in line with the outrage sparked from the tweet, or somewhere in the middle. Here is my analysis of how good Scott McTominay might just be.

ATTACKING PRINCIPLES

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As part of accomplishing many facets of the game well, Scott McTominay holds his own in possession of the ball, and can be dynamic in motoring up and down the half-spaces. With a tank-like engine, the midfield man is difficult to stop in full flow, and frequently intermixes his imposing frame with an underrated ability to wiggle his way out of danger. The Scotsman has completed 72% of his dribbles within the past year, illustrating a keen awareness of when to take players on, and how to avoid intense pressure that comes his way.

He’s improving upon his level of disguise when receiving the ball, and his close control is also growing with his confidence under Erik Ten Hag. To keep a player with the stature of Casemiro out of the lineup takes some doing, and it will only be a nice boost to McTominay’s confidence. But speaking of stature, the central midfielder has the unique advantage of being abnormally tall (6’3). In some ways, this allows him to hold off opponents, where he understands how to smartly use his arms to shield the ball and hold off unwanted attention.

But at the same time, it would be fair to say that he will never be able to master the true close control exceptionalities of a player with a lower centre of gravity, like Marco Verratti or Bernardo Silva.

Not that being tall is necessarily an automatic disqualifier to exceptional dribbling. Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice make it work for their long legs, dangling right to left for fun. The problem McTominay faces is likely in his own distrust of his weak-foot, where he’s often relying almost entirely on right-footed attempts when dribbling, decreasing the variety he can accumulate.

Jude Bellingham serves as an interesting comparison here, as the 6’0+ central midfielder completing more dribbles than anyone else. But somewhat naturally, that decreases his success rate. McTominay knows when to take players on, and often does so in those moments that he finds himself under pressure, rather than to inject a serious bit of attacking thrust into his team. This is valuable context, before stating that his shot-creation from dribbles bodes quite well and that he can, on occasion, make it count toward aiding his team’s attack.

Beyond that, McTominay’s other borderline exceptionality occurs on long passes, which he completes on a relatively infrequent degree. His passing percentage from range ranks within the top 9% of footballers in Europe’s top five leagues, with a success rate of 81.8%.

Peculiarly, he’s almost as successful with his long passes as he is with the simpler ones. This is the key hole in his game that many will pinpoint as a major weakness.

He’s not an elite level scanner, and so that manifests in two key issues. His first touch can sometimes be toward pressure rather than away from it, to which he sometimes makes up for in his dribbling technique. But other times this causes him to run straight into traffic, and lose possession of the ball.

Concomitantly, it can cause him to panic under the pressure when swarmed by several rather than one, and result in wayward passes when other players may opt to go backward and reset.

If you’re Erik Ten Hag, you have room to recognize all that McTominay has to offer before harping on about the six misplaced passes he makes on a per 90 basis. And all that the Scotsman has to offer can essentially boil down to one objectively true element of his game, despite how different we may all see the game. The 25-year-old is a combative warrior, with a fabulous engine to venture box-to-box.

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He smartly selects moments to venture forward and contribute to the attack, looking for spaces to exploit the opposition’s back-line in those right-half-spaces, before receiving a progressive pass. He can combine in those nice overloads forming down the right between Antony and Dalot, and he has the mobility to immediately race back in transition when possession changes hands.

Yes, there’s an evident difference between galloping up the right-half-spaces to create chances like Kevin de Bruyne, and selectively reasoning when to make the run forward at the most advantageous time. McTominay is not expected to be the De Bruyne of his side, and now the Red Devils have that player capable of creating from deep in Christian Eriksen. This simultaneously allows Bruno Fernandes to stop dropping away from goal himself in the quest to pull the strings, and offers McTominay an exceptionally aware partner to play alongside in the midfield line.

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The next evolution of McTominay will be in growing his ability to hold down the midfield all on his own. He must be careful not to venture too far forward without the proper support in behind, and he must grow in his understanding of how to shuffle with the play laterally, not just the wonderful shuttling he does up and down the pitch.

It’s true to say that Christian Eriksen plays ‘deep’ in that ‘Deep-Lying-Playmaker’ role, but he’s an excellent creator that should seek moments to link play in the final third and join attacks. This means McTominay must steady the ship from time to time in that ‘Shuttler’ void, and at the very least be the man to hurry back in transition if he’s caught out of position.

For the time being, he nicely performs that half-baked 6/8 role well for Ten Hag’s team, and could realistically fulfill either slot in any formation, whilst also possessing the ability to play centre-back if you’re in a pinch. His lack of elegance means that he’s not going to get it right 100% of the time, but Ten Hag and Steve Clarke know that. Both managers are fine with him getting it right 8/10 times, knowing that he offers enough to make his presence felt at all ends of the pitch and in a variety of circumstances.

DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLES

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Remember those warrior-like qualities we spoke of in the attacking sense of the Scotsman’s play? That’s all the more true in defense, where Scott McTominay throws his body in the way of any situation. Again, the natural lack of elegance in his lanky frame and uncultured style of play fools some into thinking he’s not solid when it comes to the defensive side. But in those individual battles, McTominay excels.

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Put him in an individual battle, and again, 8/10 times, you’ll see McTominay use his strength to great effect, and win the day. It’s the greater aspects of awareness where he sometimes falters, sometimes shifting too far wide or too far up the pitch to adequately respond in transition. Unfortunately for him, this is also where players like Maguire, De Gea and Shaw seem to falter, and so he’s often lumped in to the tragic mistakes made en route to goal. Mobility does not always translate into speed, particularly when needing to change direction.

But when his team are well set up to defend, McTominay is a player that you want on your team every day of the week. He will hurry, shuffle and shuttle off the ball like his life depends on it. But rarely in a relentless, overzealous way. Instead with an air of genuine intelligence, where he understands the gaps most worth covering in any given moment.

Scott McTominay’s heatmap so far in 2022-23

Above anything else, he’s completely comfortable coming toward the defensive line to crowd and compact spaces. He facilitates this process to great effect on crosses into the box and wide play in particular, where he will position himself just in front of the defensive line to make a crucial clearance or block.

It’s no surprise then that these are also the statistics where the midfielder stands out. He ranks in the top 10% of central midfielders on aerials won and aerial % (63.9%), and only 4% of players in his position boast a better record of clearing the ball away from danger.

This facet of his game goes beyond just intelligent positioning and understanding the areas worth compaction, to an incessant desire to throw himself in the way. He endeavours to get ball-side/goal-side at every opportunity, always positioning himself in front of danger men that could potentially receive the cross.

By crowding the defenders in this manner, he provides extra support to ensure the defensive line can be the last line in defense, and that he can continue to step up before the situation becomes dire. Starting in a slightly deeper position also affords him the advantage of being able to step up when necessary, where he’s completed 52.8% of his tackles this season (again in the top 4% of midfielders).

In these moments, he can prioritize screening passes that the opposition may want to play in behind (such as toward the striker), before closing down dribblers with all his might when they begin to threaten.

Beyond his team’s own defensive third, McTominay exudes a keen awareness of the potential passes that might be made, and when to step up to win the ball. His tackle and interception numbers rank well for a team so high in possession, even if he could refine his angling and timing when pressing.

The tightrope you have to walk with McTominay is that there will always be players better at timing tackles, and positioning themselves to win the ball. Apart from maybe EBL2017, we could all realistically assume that McTominay could be upgraded by a Declan Rice-type, who possesses the same imposing frame and box to box mobility, just with greater awareness of space, and more exceptionalities. But at the same time, many thought the same when Casemiro entered the door, and look at where McTominay is now – arguably playing some of his best football in a Red Devil shirt.

The other understated element of his game might be what we don’t see, such as in the dressing room, and in training. For a team so often called out for ‘lacking leadership’, McTominay feels like a leader. He’s incredibly hard-working, honest in his approach to life in football, and communicates constantly with those around him. He’s often the first to put an arm around Ronaldo and pump him up after goals, just like he’s often the first to clap the team on and demonstrate a degree of positivity when times are tough.

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This level of leadership remains vitally important in helping shape and organize the grander scheme of the team – and inspires a wider warrior mentality that has the potential to transfer over to other players. When Ralf Rangnick first introduced an edge to pressing from the front, McTominay immediately responded in making his presence felt high up the pitch. The 25-year-old will follow instructions tooth and nail, and give everything within his power for any manager he plays under. Perhaps above all else, that is why the Scotsman will always be selected by any manager that enters the door.

CONCLUSION

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Scott McTominay, in some ways, is a limited player. Apart from maybe the boring aspects like positioning himself to clear the ball out of danger, there is not one particular aspect of his game that you can turn to and confidently say that he accomplishes better than any of the world’s top midfielders. But simultaneously, he is a jack of all trades that will give his 110% every single game.

For the wider fanbase, his limitations often take over from common sense. He is fully capable of completing more dribbling magic and defensive stability than most will ever give him credit for. But at the same time, there is also a bulk of the fanbase who will over-extend his abilities, to justify and explain his continued selection in a team that possesses genuine superstars. Without floating his boat, the truthful justification might just be that McTominay is greater in the sum of his parts than the specific skillsets that shine and glow when other players enter the pitch.

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It is difficult to come to any agreement about objective truths in a game that has so many different solutions to problems, and so much variety in the way that we view the sport’s fundamental elements. But above all else, the fact that McTominay has been a consistent starter under four different managers at one of the most famous clubs in world football, objectively makes him a remarkable footballer. Where he falls on that scale of remarkability may never reach the heights of Casemiro, Declan Rice, or Bernardo Silva. But McTominay deserves to be praised in his own right, as a player who has come out against all the odds time and time again.


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So there it is! A tactical analysis of Scott McTominay, and why he’s a footballer worth greater attention. Be sure to check out more of our Player Analyses, more on the Premier League, and follow on social media @mastermindsite and @desmondrhys. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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