Analysis of Fred and Scott McTominay in rout of Leeds United
Headline takers and limelight revellers Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes rightly hogged the attention of the footballing world with their quartet of assists and triplet of goals respectively, but some praise must be reserved for the midfield pairing behind them which offered solid foundations in Manchester United’s 5-1 rout of Leeds.
Not only did Scott McTominay and Fred offer a defensive foundation from which to build – helped in that area, of course, by Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof – but their forward runs, quick offloads and presses were key in creating space for Pogba and Fernandes to flourish in.
Perhaps the most notable part of their games against Leeds – as picked up in commentary and on BBC Match of the Day – were their regular runs forward, something not always seen with the pair, although more common with McTominay in recent months.
Clearly keen to exploit Leeds United’s man-marking system, Solskjaer instructed his midfield pair to try and break the opposition lines by making those runs where appropriate, as seen on a number of occasions below.
It helped having Mason Greenwood as the striker. The 19-year-old had a fantastic game, showing the benefit of not being an out-and-out centre-forward with his constant drifting runs out to the wing and his sudden darts back into midfield, which McTominay and Fred – as well as Pogba and most prolifically Fernandes – could run off.
Those runs didn’t always lead to chances and both players often made runs at the end of which they didn’t receive the ball. That is almost the point. Late arrivals into the box – such as with Fred’s goal or McTominay’s second minute chance – are fantastic, but equally important are the runs which drag defenders away from space they would normally occupy, space which can be capitalised upon by teammates such as Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba.
This one, for example, below, shows Pogba receiving the ball 30 yards from goal, McTominay holding his position on the edge of the box, allowing Pogba to shoot by initially taking the defender away from the Frenchman. His effort was saved, but it was a chance created.
In possession, meanwhile, Fred and McTominay’s task was uncomplicated but not simple. Upon winning the ball back – something they did, between them, more than 20 times – they offloaded the ball quickly, pushing it forwards to Fernandes, Pogba and Greenwood, who created and finished with some serious efficiency.
In fact, passes from McTominay and Fred began the moves for four of United's five goals on Saturday. The only strike that didn’t include an involvement from one of the midfield pair was goal number two where Pogba’s stunning through ball for Greenwood, the weight and direction of the pass utterly perfect, was obviously the key.
This is, after all, what the midfield pair is there for: to offer foundations for the rest of the team, whether that be by winning the ball back, screening the defence, beginning counter-attacks or passing to well-positioned teammates with speed. It’s a job that can often go unrecognised but is clearly important, and Fred and McTominay did theirs well on Saturday.
Much talk in pre-season revolved around a potential change in formation for United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has long shown a preference for a 4-2-3-1 system at United but with the arrival of Jadon Sancho, a 4-3-3 has been mooted. In Saturday’s game, United showed why talking strictly in formations can often be futile.
United began in a 4-2-3-1 and, out of possession, stuck relatively firmly to this. The front four – Greenwood, James, Fernandes and Pogba – often changed position but they were pretty much always a one and then a three in front of McTominay and Fred.
In possession, though, a 4-3-3 could quickly emerge. Solskjaer said after Saturday’s game that he gave Pogba “the freedom to roam.” That he did, his assists coming from the left, middle and right of the final third and the bottom left of the middle third of the pitch. He joined Fred and McTominay in a midfield three on more than one occasion and other times, he pushed up while Fernandes dropped back into a three.
Interestingly, Fred and McTominay’s contributions on Saturday were very similar to those in last December’s 6-2 win against Leeds. In fact, McTominay completed 25 out of 29 passes in both games, recovered exactly eight loose balls in both games and made two Goal Creating Actions in both games. There are more such similar statistics, and the same is true for Fred who recovered nine loose balls in 2020 and eight in 2021 and who made 23 pressures in both games. Noteworthy, though, is that those pressures in 2021 were made deeper than in 2020, showing that he sat more in Saturday's win while McTominay and Pogba operated further up the pitch.
Many have said Leeds are the perfect team for United to play, and there’s truth in that. Marcelo Bielsa’s side’s man-marking system means if you can win your one-on-ones – something players like Pogba, Fernandes and James excel at – you can create chances. But the key to Saturday’s win was not that but the quick and fluid movement of the whole front six. Some teams play in systems that suit your own team, but you still have to take advantage.
With the defensive contributions of our midfield pairing and their movement, United did just that.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.