Analysing McTominay's improvement in 2020/21
In spite of defeat in Gdansk on Wednesday, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made a notable mention of one Manchester United player: Scott McTominay.
For many, it will still be a few more days before the cloud of disappointment lifts and we can review the season as a whole, considering the bigger picture. In light of the manager's attention on McTominay, who he called "absolutely outstanding" and the "best player on the pitch," it's worth focusing on the midfielder's improvement over the course of the 2020/21 campaign.
Although considering hypotheticals is dangerous in football, it is interesting to ponder the regard in which McTominay's performance may have been held had a different outcome realised itself from penalties in Poland. Combative as ever, the Scotland international received praise across the board for his display.
McTominay is no stranger to acclamation. Solskjaer is the third United manager to hail the 24-year-old regularly, joining not only Jose Mourinho but Sir Alex Ferguson too. Our legendary former boss has described McTominay as one of our "big players" with a "great attitude to the game."
What is it that Scott has worked on this season to help his game progress? Speaking ahead of the final, he explained his mentality to us.
“I've always got things that I'm looking at all the time for me to really dial into and focus on improving,” he said.
“I expect high standards of myself. I always expect more. I can never settle for just playing well. I always want to go to the next level.
“That's what sport is about. You want to push yourself to the next level. That's the objective of life, really, is pushing yourself to see how far you can get. I enjoy it, that adrenaline and that rush you get from pushing yourself all the time, it's exciting.”
He went into further detail in a fans' Q&A session, the full version of which will be released over the coming weeks, highlighting one aspect of his game in particular that he has dialled into, focused on and improved.
"There are a lot of things that people wouldn't notice," Scott remarked.
"When receiving the ball, I find myself in a lot better position receiving the ball, facing forwards, chest and shoulders facing forwards. I’m ready to pass forward or run forward to try to score and create goals.
“It’s that little bit of positional changing.”
It's been clear for a while that McTominay has the qualities to fulfil the role of a combative midfielder, breaking up play, committing to tackles and acting as some sort of shield to the defence, using what Sir Alex has described as those "long, lanky" legs. That insight into his body shape is interesting, though, and it's about adding a new dimension to his game.
McTominay is adding attacking drive to his game, hoping to contribute more in that arena. United's great midfielders have never held only one attribute because at the top-level, you need to be more than a pure ball-winner, passer or dribbler, you have to be one of those things, more and then something on top of that. It's a process to reach that level.
This season McTominay has been seen driving forward, using his long stride and upper body strength to hold people off and drag his team up the pitch. We certainly saw that in Gdansk. That part of any footballer's game is only possible if they can receive the ball in space or have good enough footwork to navigate through tight spaces.
The former option is an easier and more reliable method of finding space, and that's what McTominay has worked on, training his ability to turn with his first touch, push into space and offer himself more options. When you watch McTominay now, you're more likely to see him open up his body and look up the pitch ready for his next action, whether it's a shot, dribble or pass.
McTominay receiving the ball and getting away from his marker is a small change to his game but one that has important consequences. By opening up his body and setting the ball out into space, he has more available options. The time and space permitted by that first action means new passing lanes are open or he has more green grass in which to punch into. A different first touch or bodyshape might force a player to pass backwards instead.
The stats demonstrate a change in McTominay's game in this regard. It's his best season with regards to carrying the ball. He trails just behind serial-creators Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford in terms of number of carries into the final third per game. The same is true of progressive dribbles all across the pitch, with an average of 5.27 per 90 minutes, a career high.
There's plenty more. He's had more touches in the final third and in the opposition's penalty area this season than any other United player. Only Bruno and Rashford have been fouled more times than McTominay, indicating that he's getting past his man and being dragged back or taken down to prevent the counter-attack.
ALWAYS ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
As Scott has said himself, there is more to work on. This was a good season, two notable highlights being his brace in the 6-2 thrashing of Leeds and when he put in a goalscoring captain's performance in an FA Cup win against Watford. Continuing to add more goals to his game is an obvious target, one that both he and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have spoken about.
There'll be other things, too, small improvements to specific parts of his game that casual watchers might not notice but players and coaches will, including on body shape and positioning. It has a big impact. McTominay is only 24 still. Comparisons to current United staff member Darren Fletcher will persist because of his style as well as his nationality. Replicating Fletcher would be good going. Both players proved doubters wrong and Fletcher, as McTominay appears to be doing, made himself indispensable in big games.
For now, attention will turn to representing Scotland at Euro 2020 and then it'll be straight back to seeking regular improvements to make sure he has the best chance of asserting himself in the United midfield.
All stats via fbref.com