McTominay's seven goals have earned Man United 12 points. What does it say about Ten Hag's side?
There are many ways to gauge a player’s importance to a team, lots of them immeasurable.
Spirit, courage, energy.
Scott McTominay’s value to Manchester United has, for much of his career, been calculated using these kinds of unquantifiable terms.
Then comes this campaign, where his influence on Erik ten Hag’s team can be boiled down to a quite remarkable empirical level.
By scoring in the 86th minute at Aston Villa, McTominay turned a draw into a vital victory, continuing a run where every one of his seven Premier League goals this season has meant something to United. Those contributions have equated to an extra 12 points for Ten Hag’s side – the most by any player in the division — and without them United would be 12th in the Premier League.
The players joining him at the top of the list read like a Who’s Who of in-form attackers. Son Heung-min, Dominic Solanke, Erling Haaland, Mohamed Salah, Bukayo Saka and Richarlison.
Points won by player goals in PL
|Premier League 2023-24
None can match McTominay’s ratio for scoring significance, however. Son, in second place, has scored two more goals to win Tottenham Hotspur two fewer points than McTominay has for United.
That wild afternoon in October, when McTominay scored twice after the 90th minute to claw victory from the jaws of defeat against Brentford, stands out as the most distilled expression of his impact.
Then came his opening goal at Sheffield United in a 2-1 win later that month, and another brace against Chelsea at Old Trafford in December in another game that finished 2-1.
At Molineux 10 days ago, he came off the bench to score with his first touch to put United 3-1 ahead in a game that ended 4-3. His arrival as a late substitute worked once more at Villa Park, to even more crucial effect.
A draw with Unai Emery’s team would have left United trailing them in the table by eight points – a big gap to make up with 14 games left. Now, United are five points back and with momentum to reel in Villa. Fifth place could be enough for Champions League qualification, should those English teams in Europe progress as expected.
McTominay had six touches in his 17 minutes on the pitch at Villa Park, with one shot. It was exactly why Ten Hag sent him on with the score at 1-1. Marcus Rashford, who had enjoyed a good game running at Matty Cash, was removed, with Alejandro Garnacho switching to the left wing and Bruno Fernandes shifting to the right.
Rashford might have felt hard done by, justifiably, given he had got Cash on a booking. But Ten Hag felt United’s chances of scoring would be improved by McTominay’s presence in the box.
And so it proved. He was in the perfect place to meet Diogo Dalot’s excellent cross and power his header past Emi Martinez. Villa’s centre-backs had two players to mark instead of one and were unable to guard sufficiently. Rasmus Hojlund, who had already poached a goal from inside the six-yard box, was also stood within the width of the posts when Dalot swept the ball over and McTominay headed home.
It was McTominay’s fourth goal off the bench this season and he celebrated in the knowledge of its meaning, running full-blooded, arm aloft, into the travelling fans. He has only started 12 Premier League games this campaign, making nine substitute appearances. But he is United’s top scorer (Rashford and Hojlund have five each) and Ten Hag has come to count on him in these tight circumstances.
“He is an example for many other players,” said Ten Hag. “He is ready to bring this energy. He is always giving the spirit in the week, when he is training as opposition, working on himself. He is ready for one minute, ready for 90 minutes. It is great to have such a player.”
Those are the kind of indefinable qualities that have driven McTominay to force a career at United. This season they have been tweaked to laser precision. “With Scott, you bring fresh legs in the pressing, also one who can make (it into) the box, score a goal,” Ten Hag added.
It says much about Ten Hag’s United this season that McTominay has had such a major role, though. Ideally, Ten Hag would not be relying on a player in such a specified way. At times, it seems as if McTominay occupies the same spaces as Hojlund – there was a moment before his goal where both players dropped deep to try to collect, then made darts ahead – but Ten Hag is a pragmatic manager and loading the box has worked for him.
Over the course of the entire game, Ten Hag would like more control. United started well, winning possession and countering, then going ahead through Hojlund at a corner, but Villa’s aggression became almost overwhelming.
Andre Onana made a string of saves from close range, some fortuitous, before Douglas Luiz equalised in the 67th minute. From there, Villa looked the likelier to score. When the game finished, they had 419 passes to United’s 307, which gave context to Ten Hag’s assessment.
“We could have done more,” he said. “We went every time for goal and not keeping the ball. Recognise the situation, attract, drag them out, then find the right moment to speed it up. Clever players read the game.”
Bruno Fernandes started the match trying to keep possession ticking over, but as the contest wore on and Villa swarmed, he looked increasingly for the killer pass. He was not the only one guilty of that, though.
The longer United are unable to command the ball and take the sting out of matches, the more McTominay’s goals will carry the greatest consequence.
(Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)