Every manager has players they love, trust, protect and give many, many opportunities to. Even when they, arguably, shouldn’t.
Sir Alex Ferguson had Darren Fletcher. The academy product and so-called “teacher’s pet” got off to a slow start and often looked like he wasn’t up to par. Yet he always seemed to get opportunities — something that befuddled fans and even some teammates. Eventually, Ferguson’s surrogate son made good and became an important first-team player. His physicality and steel in midfield were important qualities and often came in handy against smaller, more skilled sides like Arsenal. And more recently, he came back as Technical Director, although what he actually does remains a subject of debate.
For Louis van Gaal, it was Wayne Rooney. The United captain was in decline when van Gaal came aboard, yet the gaffer treated him as if he were still a superstar in his prime. Van Gaal considered him undroppable and even put Rooney amongst the five best players he’s ever managed — ahead of the likes of Xavi, Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Rivaldo, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Rooney’s teammate Robin Van Persie.
Jose Mourinho had a few players that could do no wrong. Nemanja Matic was like his Fletcher, right down to people calling him Mourinho’s surrogate son. Marouane Fellaini went from a much-maligned figure who was a symbol of the club’s shortcomings during the initial post-Ferguson era to an important weapon. Mourinho also loved Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the feeling was definitely mutual.
Then there’s Scott McTominay. Looking like Fletcher’s younger brother, McTominay has been a favorite of several managers. Mourinho brought McTominay into the senior team and was so impressed he created a year-end award just for him (one that hasn’t been awarded since).
Ole Gunnar Solskjær also loved McTominay. The former gaffer always picked McTominay for important matches and would often go out of his way to praise and defend him. In fact, when Solskjær’s United played Mourinho’s Spurs in 2019, the contest didn’t end on the pitch. Instead, both gaffers turned their post-match interviews into a competition to see who could lavish the most praise on McTominay.
You can almost say he [McTominay] is undroppable at the moment… He was absolutely top class, you didn’t expect anything else, because [I] see a boy doing everything right every single day in training, and he prepares properly and they’re the boys you wanna have in the team. He’s so professional, he’s not tainted by any superstar or fame, he just wants to become the best footballer he can be, and that’s the people I want in this club. He would’ve suited my squad when I played, he would’ve fit right in that squad because he’s come through the academy. He’s one of ours. He’s one of the locals and knows what Man United means.Ole Gunnar Solskjær, December 4, 2019
Not to be outdone, Mourinho hailed McTominay’s performance as “dominant” and revealed that he specifically warned his Spurs players about his former charge’s intensity and aggression.
The love for McTominay continued even after Solskjær was sacked. Even though fans were clamoring for Donny van de Beek to finally get a chance, caretaker manager Michael Carrick started McTominay in all three of his matches in charge: a difficult away fixture against Villarreal in the Champions League, and then two tough matches in the Premier League against traditional rivals Chelsea and Arsenal. Carrick even singled McTominay out for praise after the Chelsea match, lauding the midfielder for being selfless in his positioning and even dropping back as a defender on multiple occasions (which begged the question as to why McTominay didn’t get a look as a third center-half when Solskjær used a back-three against Spurs and City, since he seems comfortable in the back and even plays as a defender for Scotland).
On the one hand, it’s not hard to see why so many managers love McTominay. By all accounts, he’s a model professional and leader — and like Fletcher, McTominay brings aggression to midfield and plays with a bit of an edge. “He’s like this because he’s had to fight for everything he’s ever had,” one source told Andy Mitten of The Athletic. “Never write him off, he’ll always fight.”
But his limitations are glaring. Tifo breaks it down well in this video:
As Tifo noted, his unwillingness to run into space in the middle or defensive third often forces the back four to play more square or back passes, thereby giving the opposing team time to settle into a low block, which has been United’s kryptonite over the last few seasons (and was a problem under van Gaal, too). In the recent 3-2 win over Arsenal, McTominay was repeatedly given space in the middle and defensive third, almost as if the Gunners were daring him to run into it. Time and time again, McTominay refused to take the bait — almost in a “no, that’s just what they’ll be expecting me to do” approach. Oftentimes, when he does get the ball in the middle or defensive third, he simply passes it back or squares it to Fred, recalling another United academy product that became infamous for his rugby-style distribution: Tom Cleverley.
To be fair, McTominay can be adventurous and proactive — his cross into the box against Norwich on Saturday resulted in the penalty against Cristiano Ronaldo that led to the only goal of the match. And as Tifo noted, his progressive passing per 90 minutes compares favorably to his more celebrated counterparts, Jorginho of Chelsea and Rodri of Man City. But typically, that’s after his team has already moved into the attacking third — often without his help, since he tends to play conservative passes when he’s in the defensive or middle third. It’s almost like the Mourinho approach of protecting the backline and not giving the ball away in bad positions has been so engrained in McTominay that he feels like he must continue playing that way. The team’s defensive woes under Solskjær probably reinforced that mentality.
Under Ralf Rangnick, McTominay has kept his place in the team, starting against both Crystal Palace and Norwich. But that could be because Rangnick is still evaluating his team and figuring out his best lineup. Or it could be that Rangnick also sees something in McTominay beyond his resemblance to Darren Fletcher.
For one thing, McTominay’s discipline allows United to play Fred in a more advanced role, something that has paid dividends so far. Fred has looked like a completely new player since Solskjær was sacked, as both Carrick and Rangnick have freed him from his pure holding role (which didn’t suit him) and unleashed him on opposing defenses as a presser and destroyer. His press against Villarreal lead to Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener, and he’s been one of the best players of Rangnick’s early reign, scoring the lone goal against Crystal Palace and putting in a Man of the Match-caliber performance against Norwich.
On the other hand, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for McFred. The new gaffer criticized them both after the Crystal Palace match for playing square passes, and called out the team, in general, for not playing enough forward passes during the Norwich match. For McTominay, he seems like he knows he’s been put notice, getting defensive with an interviewer after being asked about Rangnick’s comments after the Crystal Palace match.
Maybe he senses his days as the favorite son could be numbered.