Manchester United have represented something of a contradiction this year.
It’s been a season characterised by poor performances, lacklustre lows and depressing defeats, yet Erik ten Hag’s side sit only three points behind Manchester City in the league.
Questions are being asked of the Dutch manager, with unfounded rumours suggesting he’s lost the dressing room, while Pep Guardiola is widely tipped to win the league by every pundit in the game. Three points apparently constitute the difference between a manager in crisis and a manager in certain contention.
While United have struggled to score in the league – only six teams have registered fewer goals than them – they are currently in 6th place, with only two less wins than first-place Arsenal. This contradictory position is exemplified by Rasmus Hojlund who, despite many positive displays, is yet to score a goal domestically.
In the Champions League, however, United have scored twelve goals and Hojlund is the joint-top scorer. Only four teams have scored more than United, with all four sitting comfortably atop their groups. Yet United are bottom of their group, on the verge of elimination from the competition.
Andre Onana, signed this summer for his unique style in goal during Inter Milan’s Champions League run last season, has almost single-handedly caused these issues in Europe for United. A string of calamitous errors – against Bayern Munich, Galatasaray (twice) and FC Copenhagen – have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for his new side.
Yet in the Premier League, Onana ranks top amongst the more ‘traditional’ goalkeeping statistics. The unconventional Champions League-level goalkeeper, who thrives with the ball at his feet, has been converted into traditional domestic shot-stopper who falls apart on the continent.
Andre Onana’s Premier League stats so far:
🏟️ 13 games
🔢 78.8% save rate [=🥇]
🧤 51 saves [🥈]
🧼 5 clean sheets [=🥇]
❎ +3.4 post-shot expected goals [=🥈]
🥅 2.67 goals prevented [🥈]
Underrated. 😤 pic.twitter.com/zM9S0yfUKB
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) November 27, 2023
It’s a similar story of contradiction for existing players as well.
Harry Maguire, fresh from a summer which saw him removed as captain by Ten Hag and nearly sold to West Ham such was the desire at United for him to depart, has re-emerged as a vital player in the starting eleven.
In fact, Maguire’s performances have been so strong that the English defender was crowned Premier League Player of the Month for November with Old Trafford loudly singing his name last night. A stark contrast from the same centre-half who was widely booed during United’s pre-season tour of America, as well as when representing his country, a mere four months ago.
Yet no player embodies the contradictory nature of United this season more than Scott McTominay.
The academy graduate had, in a similar vein to Maguire, appeared destined for the exit door at Old Trafford this summer. Reports linking McTominay with West Ham, Newcastle and Fulham were rife throughout the window, and it’s thought he remained as none of these teams matched United’s valuation of the player, rather than out of any strong desire to keep him.
The Scottish international had fallen down the pecking order despite a promising start under Ten Hag. A comprehensive midfield recruitment drive, over two summer windows, had seen United bring Christian Eriksen, Casemiro, Mason Mount and Sofyan Amrabat to the club. The emergence of Kobbie Mainoo further relegated McTominay down the list of midfield options.
Yet, four months on, none of these names have come close to having as decisive an effect on United’s fortunes this season as the Scotsman.
McTominay has scored six goals and provided one assist so far; five in the league and one in Europe. He is United’s top scorer in all competitions, with Ten Hag revealing he can “smell” goals in the post-match interview last night.
United produced their best performance of the season against Chelsea yesterday, exhibiting the type of high-energy, high-intensity style their manager has been demanding since the summer. They outran their London rivals and should have run out comfortable winners, had it not been for the team’s persistent profligacy continuing to rear its ugly head.
Man Utd (4.46) 2-1 (1.52) Chelsea
— The xG Philosophy (@xGPhilosophy) December 6, 2023
Both of United’s goals were scored by McTominay – two finishes any poacher in world football would have been proud of. It’s not the first time Ten Hag has been reliant on the Scotsman’s league goals to return a result.
McTominay’s first goal of the season came in the 93rd minute at Old Trafford, to draw United level against Brentford. His second strike came four minutes later, to complete an outrageous comeback in injury time to claim all three points.
His third goal was an opener against Sheffield United – a match which Ten Hag’s side would eke a 2-1 win from – before last night’s brace took him to five league goals for the season; sufficient to secure all three points.
If we were to run an experiment and sell McTominay in the summer, thus removing his vital contributions in front of goal this year, United would be seven points worse off this season. These changed results would leave United eleventh in the table and, more than likely, Ten Hag teetering on the edge of unemployment.
McTominay’s performances appear, therefore, vital to the glimmers of success United have enjoyed this season and it seems an unintended blessing he was not sold in the summer. So where is the contradiction?
That would stem from the unfortunate reality that while McTominay has produced moments which have won games for United, he has largely delivered performances (or lack thereof) which have contributed to his side’s dismal form this season.
Deployed in the midfield role, McTominay resembles more of a helpless passenger than a central midfielder, by the standards of a ‘big’ team.
The Scotsman is unable, or unwilling, to make himself available as a passing option. He appears afraid of receiving the ball on the half-turn in midfield and lacks the technical ability to evade the opposition press. His short-range passing is woeful, while his involvement in link-up play is non-existent.
McTominay also is unable to impose himself physically the way a player of his stature and physique should. In the recent match against Newcastle, the 26-year old was bullied by Joelinton as the Magpies’ midfield overwhelmed their Red Devil counterparts with ease.
If Chelsea were fortunate to ‘only’ lose 2-1 last night, United should have been ecstatic to have lost by only one goal against Newcastle. McTominay touched the ball just thirty times across one hundred minutes of football in this match – a truly baffling statistic for a midfielder.
The recent elegant performances of Mainoo, who appears set to assume a permanent spot in Ten Hag’s plans moving forward, offered a stark contrast to the clumsy efforts of McTominay in the same area of the pitch. And yet, United’s number thirty-nine played ahead of Mainoo last night – with justifiable results!
At present, Ten Hag is dealing with something of an inexplicable situation in his team. McTominay can only realistically start in central midfield, where he possesses a scarcity of suitable attributes. The team plays worse, in part, due to this decision.
Yet the Dutch manager cannot drop McTominay from the midfield as the Scotsman poses his single most potent goal-scoring threat. While the team may play better football in McTominay’s absence, they appear far less likely to score – a complete contradiction.
But contradictions have defined United’s season to date, and it’s a phenomenon Ten Hag will have to resolve quickly if United are to have any hopes of success this year.
If the manager can find goals from different sources – Hojlund, Antony, Bruno Fernandes, Alejandro Garnacho or, ideally, Marcus Rashford – the reliance on McTominay will be reduced. This will then enable Ten Hag to deploy a duo – of Mainoo and Amrabat (with Casemiro and Mason Mount unavailable until the new year) – which is far closer to the profile of midfield he wants.
McTominay can then function in his best position for United – as a potential match-winner from the bench, rather than a permanent fixture in the starting eleven.
If McTominay continues to start for United, he will likely continue to produce big moments which sometimes win games. If McTominay continues to start for United, he will definitely continue to be unable to produce the midfield basics which are always required to win games.
Ten Hag needs to recognise this conflict and make the necessary adjustments to relieve himself of his McTominay dependence.