Opinion: McTominay vital to Ten Hag's resurgent United
Sunday's Man of the Match prize rightly went to Christian Eriksen, for a sublime display of subtle, intelligent passing from deep midfield. But there were many outstanding United performances in the brilliant 3-1 win over Arsenal.
Amid the near universal acclaim for Eriksen, critics and appraisers could perhaps be forgiven for overlooking his midfield partner, Scott McTominay.
But Arsenal was arguably the Scotland international's best game of the season. And when you dig into the context around McTominay's performance, your respect for the combative Academy graduate is only likely to rise.
Casemiro's exciting move to United has heightened the battle for a starting berth in Erik ten Hag's midfield, and with good reason: the Brazilian has been arguably the leading defensive midfielder in world football over the last few years.
The aforementioned Eriksen is a Premier League stalwart, who has always been admired for his class and composure. Add that pair to Bruno Fernandes – United's most influential player since he joined in 2020 – plus Casemiro's partner in the Brazil midfield, Fred, and you've got some serious competition in the squad.
But against most expectations, McTominay has kept his place, and excelled in four consecutive wins. Against the Gunners, he even completed all 25 of his passes. But, more importantly, he made it a wholly uncomfortable 90 minutes for Mikel Arteta's men.
It's easy to praise artists like Eriksen and Fernandes – and they deserve it for moves like the ones that led to our three goals on Sunday.
But if you're inside the stadium, roaring the Reds on, you know that tackles, chasing and general harassment are equally important. That's what gets the crowd up; that's what enflames Old Trafford, transforming it from a Theatre of Dreams into something of a nightmarish bear pit for opponents. Arsenal have just one league win here since 2006, and that 2020 victory came in a behind-closed-doors game. There's a reason for that.
McTominay loves this kind of contest: a chance to prove himself against players with big reputations – the kind that fantasy football enthusiasts swoon over. Remember his Champions League performances against Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona in 2019?
Yes, he received a yellow card against Arsenal – his fourth of the season, which is an area of his game he needs to fine tune – but his battling presence and slick, no-nonsense passing did much to set the tempo and tenor of the afternoon.
Eriksen, for one, was impressed.
“Scott has done very well and I think you can see that from the games,” the Dane told club media the day after the game.
“I think in the first few ones we were looking for each other a bit and seeing where we are, but now I think we are starting to get a good connection and a good feeling of where you should be, and also because of the instructions of the manager, as he has the positions he would like us to be in.
“I think it’s gone well, but also when you win games it’s just easier to look back and the confidence builds up and you forget the small mistakes you make and remember the good things. There are a lot of things we can improve, but it’s a good road we’re on.”
Sometimes, you hear former pros mention the question, “What does my opponent least want to do?” The point being? That a decent, basic game plan is simply making life awkward for your opposite number.
McTominay did that superbly for United at the weekend and, truth be told, does it a lot more often than he receives credit for. In the 1-0 wins at Southampton and Leicester, his powers of resistance and determination were particularly crucial.
Intriguingly, in January, and before he rejoined United's coaching staff, Steve McClaren offered up praise for Scott in an interview, claiming the 25-year-old was an archetypal Manchester United player.
“You put him on the field and he delivers,” said Steve McClaren in January. “He's a Manchester United player – seven or eight out of 10 every week. That's what makes a Manchester United player.
“He breaks up play, he's box to box, he's got energy, attitude, can deal with the ball, gets into the box and can score goals. He's doing very well.”
Sadly, in the social media age, where everyone seems to be a UEFA Pro Licence coach, you don't have to go too far to find a hysterical voice willing to oppose that view.
But the facts are that McTominay has now made 176 United appearances under five different managers. All have been committed McTominay fans, who never hesitated to rely on the player.
Rewatch the Arsenal game, and you'll understand why.
When the pressure is high, when the doubters are chirping, when other players are looking around for a leader or an example to follow, our no.39 is usually the first to get straight to work.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.