Scott McTominay, Manchester United and the puzzle of his Scotland role

A midfielder in sparkling form for his national team but struggling to replicate things for Manchester United? Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.

Scott McTominay has been one of the standout performers in international football this year, adding a goal and an assist against Cyprus last week. The United midfielder now has six goals in qualifying, a tally only bettered by Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku on eight (McTominay’s club team-mate Rasmus Hojlund also has six for Denmark).

The 26-year-old midfielder looks revitalised in a more attacking role for Scotland, prompting questions about whether United manager Erik ten Hag should experiment with McTominay in more advanced positions to get the best out of him at club level.

What makes McTominay so good for Scotland?

McTominay’s recent purple patch has come from manager Steve Clarke deploying him in a more advanced position in Scotland’s 3-5-2/3-4-2-1 shape. Rather than ask the United man to collect the ball from his centre-backs and contribute to build-up play, McTominay has a more streamlined set of responsibilities, where he looks to make late arrivals into the penalty area and get on the end of crosses.

His goal against Cyprus is a good example of this. McTominay — who had also been used as a defender in a back three and a defensive midfielder for Scotland — now has the freedom to power into the final third.

It’s the sort of goal that explains why Eric Bailly nicknamed the midfielder “McDominate” and why sections of the United fanbase call him “McSauce”. McTominay’s height and physical build make him a danger when making quick bursts into the penalty area. His ball striking — while inconsistent when under pressure in deeper areas –  can be effective when given space to fashion a shot.

However, McTominay’s goal tally loses some of its shine when you consider the opposition (three goals against Cyprus and one at home to Georgia, as well as two against Spain). Four of his six goals have been with his weaker left foot.

Why doesn’t Ten Hag use him in the same way?

The confusing thing is Ten Hag has already tried using him like this.

McTominay made 39 appearances for United last season, totalling 1,687 minutes and including 16 starts. At the start of 2022-23, he was once again used as the deepest midfielder in a series of flawed but willing midfield partnerships before Casemiro gradually replaced him. As the season went on, however, Ten Hag used McTominay as a No 10 in the latter stages of games, with Bruno Fernandes moving over to the right of the 4-2-3-1.

A late winner against Omonia Nicosia in the Europa League group stage had many of the positive characteristics seen in McTominay’s best performances for Scotland.

Again, he finds himself free in a dangerous area near the penalty spot while defenders focus on other attackers, this time including Cristiano Ronaldo.

In a fun quirk, he makes the same run as Ronaldo towards the near post, hoping Jadon Sancho delivers a cross from the left.

Sancho instead attempts to cut back inside and shoot. The shot is blocked and the ball bobbles into the path of McTominay, who is stationed like an auxiliary forward.

McTominay collects vs Omonia 221022

He demonstrates quick feet to get the ball out from under him and shoot through a crowd of bodies and into the near corner.

McTominay scores vs Omonia 221023

His only league goal from last season — in April’s 2-0 win over Everton — showed similar qualities.

After a failed attempt to play the ball to Marcus Rashford in a central area, United then move it out to the right.

McTominay attacks the cross vs Everton 8722

The midfielder makes a nice run towards the near post to eke out a bit of attacking space…

McTominay finds space vs Everton 8722

… before latching on to Sancho’s pass and scoring with a one-touch finish.

McTominay scores vs Everton 8722

Ten Hag is not the only United manager to use McTominay in this way. Fans will remember the Scot’s best attacking performances for the club came against Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave the midfielder greater freedom to join attacks while Fred held down the defensive fort.

McTominay can — and already has — shown he can do an attacking job for club and country. The issue is he might not be able to replicate his Scotland form across a season of club football for a team of United’s size. As shown in Scotland’s 3-1 defeat to England on Tuesday, his attacking output is limited in games where his team cannot dominate possession and give him the freedom to scour for space in the box.

McTominay works better as an attacking box-to-box midfielder not simply because it makes use of his best characteristics (his physicality and stamina, his ball striking when unpressured, his aerial threat) but also because of how it alleviates his weakness when playing in deeper positions. Even so, when asked to get forward, his lack of creative playmaking means he is best applying the finishing touches to attacking moves. It’s impressive work to go from piano carrier to piano player, but McTominay can only play a certain number of songs that hold value as a late contrast to others.

United managers have avoided giving the midfielder this advanced role in the past because 1) the lack of defensive midfielders in the squad meant he was needed in deeper areas and 2) Fernandes offers much of what McTominay can do in advanced areas, along with his array of creative passing.

The arrival of Sofyan Amrabat on deadline day has opened the door for McTominay to be used in a more advanced role. Ten Hag could pair the Moroccan with Casemiro in the midfield pivot while moving Fernandes over to the right wing to accommodate McTominay (we’ll cover that in more depth later this week). McTominay’s off-ball running and late entries into the box could be of value to United in games against deep defences, but McTominay is unlikely to be more than an attacking Plan B for Ten Hag this season.

There has been some talk about making him an emergency centre-forward option. However, his off-ball movement is best when he is a surprise threat rather than a focal point, and he is ill at ease receiving the ball while being pressured/with his back to goal, meaning he would have difficulty playing as a target man.

If any Premier League clubs are well-suited to using McTominay in this way, they would be found in the capital. He could operate for Crystal Palace like Conor Gallagher did during his loan season there. Had West Ham secured McTominay’s services, David Moyes may have used him to attack the box as Tomas Soucek did during his most productive period.

McTominay remains a divisive figure who has been at the centre of many debates among United fans. Some view him as an ultra-professional who might one day follow in Darren Fletcher’s footsteps and blossom into an essential part of the starting XI. Others believe he is limited on and off the ball and should be moved on to make space for midfield reinforcements. West Ham’s double bid of £60million ($75m) for McTominay and Harry Maguire could have seen both players re-establish themselves away from Old Trafford. That the offer was rejected shows how the United setup appreciates both men and the roles they could play in 2023-24.

There will be games this season where McTominay’s power, movement and intelligence around the box can give United a different attacking element against stubborn defences. He might not be called upon every week, but he’s a player with plenty to offer.

(Top photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

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