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Mourinho’s ‘pawn’ to a future Man Utd captain? How McTominay became a midfield ‘monster’



The Scotland international has grown into a true leader at Old Trafford and is a key component of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s surprise title challengers 

When Manchester United fans first set their eyes on Scott McTominay, the word “monster” was probably not what came to mind.

And yet, just over three-and-a-half years on, there was barely a raised eyebrow when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer used it the term to describe a player who has gone from strength to strength over the past 12 months.

“Scott has had a very good season,” Solskjaer told the BBC after Saturday’s FA Cup win over Watford as McTominay headed in the winner having been named United captain for the first time in his short career.

I wanted to test him today so I gave him the armband to see if there was any change in him and how he would react, but there wasn’t.

“He’s got great character. He comes in every day, does the right things, lives his life properly, wants to be the best he can be, not afraid of being vocal but always goes out there to do his best, he’s got everything a leader has to have.

“He is being more and more dangerous, we know he can be a box-to-box midfielder. He should have scored a few more on set-plays before now because he is a monster of a human being. I am very happy he got the goal.”

McTominay’s goal capped another fine performance for the Scotlandinternational, with his determination, dedication and persistence to the cause now starting to bear fruit after he turned 24 back in December.

He has become a trusted member of Solskjaer’s best team having played a key role in a Red Devils revival that could reach new heights on Tuesday if they avoid defeat at Burnley and move ahead of Liverpool to go top of the Premier League for the first time since 2017.

A visit to Anfield follows on Sunday, and given McTominay’s knack of finding the net against United’s biggest rivals during 2020, it would take quite a change of heart from Solskjaer for him to be left out for their first major grudge match in league football in 2021.

McTominay thrives in such encounters, driven on by a love for the club that was perfectly illustrated by the picture he shared of his teenage self alongside Sir Alex Ferguson in the hours after leading his boyhood club out at the Theatre of Dreams

Back then, McTominay was far from the “monster” that United coaches and fans have come to love. He had a slight frame and stood at around 5’7″ for much of his teens before he grew eight inches over the course of the 2016-17 campaign.

Rarely singled out as a future star, it needed the support of academy staff such as Brian McClair and Paul McGuinness to ensure that McTominay was even kept within the club’s youth ranks.

During his final two seasons in the Under-18s he played just under two hours of competitive football, while during his first year with the U21s he made just two starts as he largely had to make do with a role coming off the bench.

It was only after his growth spurt that he began to start regularly, and having caught the eye of first-team manager Jose Mourinho he made his senior debut in the closing weeks of the 16-17 season.

McTominay’s work rate, willingness to follow instructions and overall character endeared him to Mourinho, and over the course of the 2017-18 campaign he began to earn more and more opportunities within the first-team.

His inclusion was met with some derision, though, as fans and pundits alike questioned whether this admittedly limited youngster was really the answer to United’s midfield problems, when at the same time Paul Pogba was unable to hold down a regular starting berth.

McTominay was labelled something of a ‘teacher’s pet’ under Mourinho, and that was only exacerbated after the Portuguese’s last-minute decision to reward his young charge at the club’s end-of-season awards ceremony

Much to the surprise of everyone in the room, Mourinho awarded McTominay with his own ‘Manager’s Player of the Year’ prize, though the trophy the Lancaster-born starlet received was actually one of the table decorations from the black-tie dinner, rather than anything bespoke.

“The meaning is important. I think the dream of every boy that arrives at the club is to play for the first-team,” Mourinho said on the night. “When the dream becomes true, the next dream is to play in big matches and to play in the Champions League and eventually to play for the national team.

“This player has given everything in five or six months, so my player of the year has to be Scott McTominay.”

Though the national media naturally had a field day with Mourinho’s rather bizarre call, for the ex-Chelsea boss it was the gesture which highlighted to McTominay that his dedication was paying off.

A source described the midfielder to Xpooze as “the antithesis of a lot of modern footballers” in that he is not interested in the fanfare that accompanies a professional career, with McTominay having shied away from commercial endorsements despite approaching the prime years of his career.

You won’t come across many players who have applied themselves as well as he has consistently over a long period,” the source added. “That’s what separates him from others and has led to his success.”

Given Mourinho’s history with hard-working players, it is no surprise that he was drawn to McTominay, and even if his initial inclusion was part of some kind of behind-the-scenes battle of wills with Pogba, the odds siggest that the man Mourinho picked will outlast his fellow midfielder at Old Trafford.

If Mourinho can be credited for seeing something in McTominay that few other coaches had done previously, then Solskjaer has to take some of the praise for the player’s development since the start of 2020.

Thought of as being a primarily defensive midfielder, more and more each week McTominay is developing into a complete midfielder who can contribute as much in the opposition’s final third as he can the other 67 per cent of the pitch.

His goal against Watford took him to four for the season already in all competitions, and to within one of his best-ever season after he found the net on five occasions in 2019-20.

And while his monstrous frame does give him an advantage from set-pieces, he is proving to be as much of a threat from open play, with his two goals against Leeds United perfect illustrations of the finishing ability that helped convince some academy coaches to try him out as a central striker in his youth.

His creativity in attacking areas has also improved, with McTominay having created an average of 1.1 chances per game for his team-mates this season – a metric that has almost doubled since his first season under Mourinho.

For too long United’s squad has been defined by the egos inside the dressing room, but this season’s surprise title push has been underpinned by a togetherness among a squad that is more focused on gradually improving on the pitch than it is by matters off it. McTominay is the personification of that notion.

For me when the manager told me [I was going to be captain], it was a surreal moment. I’ve been here since I was five years old, so basically 18 or 19 years, I love this football club, it’s been my whole life and it was a real honour for me,” he said after the Watford win.

“The manager has been nothing but amazing for me since he came to the club, I’ve got a lot to thank him for, but the best way to thank him is putting performances in on the pitch. As long as I’ve got the manager’s trust, I’m happy.”

McTominay certainly does have Solskjaer’s trust. He may have been dismissed as a mere pawn in Mourinho’s mind games at the start of his career, but there is no doubt that the “monster” is now one of United’s most important chess pieces.