Football is often a contradictory business. What is true in one arena is a falsehood within another. It is within this delicate balance of confusion that Scott McTominay sits. The midfielder was seen as an expendable but lucrative asset during the summer transfer window. A saleable product that didn’t quite fit with manager Erik ten Hag’s brand. But Scotland manager Steve Clarke views the 26-year-old very differently. McTominay could be the deciding factor as his country takes to the pitch against England tonight (Tuesday 12th September) at Hampden Park.
The 150th Anniversary Heritage Match is being dubbed a friendly. Of course matches between these nations are anything but. McTominay will know that as well as anyone. Born in Lancaster to a Scottish father, the midfielder’s very identity straddles the divide. It is an appropriate metaphor for the duality of McTominay the footballer.
He’s square peg in a round hole at Old Trafford. Physically imposing but not disciplined enough for pure defensive midfield work. Dangerous in attacking areas but without the incisive passing that Ten Hag favours. Interest from the likes of West Ham United shows that McTominay’s brand of energetic box-to-box play is sought after. But it isn’t a good fit for where his current team is heading.
A striker at youth level, Clarke is tapping into that side of McTominay to lead him through a blistering stint of goalscoring form. Heading into Euro 2024 qualifying, the United man had just one international goal to his game. That strike came in 2021 against Israel. With five games played in Group A, McTominay has scored six goals. That total puts him joint-top of the tournament scoring charts, with Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku and his United teammate Rasmus Hojlund of Denmark.
McTominay put his new role as goalscoring midfield dynamo on the map with a brace in a 2-0 win over Spain. A truly defining result for this bright era of Scottish football, it is a match that will live long in the memory. What is often missed is the fact McTominay also notched two goals in a 3-0 win over Cyprus three days before.
McTominay further crystallised his role as net-busting Tartan talisman with a goal in June against Georgia and a further strike last week in the return with Cyprus. Far from an aberration, Clarke’s plan to make McTominay an attacking threat has been by design.
Whether lining up in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3, McTominay’s remit is to get forward. It is a freedom he is unlikely to get at Old Trafford. There, he is behind Bruno Fernandes, Christian Eriksen and new signing Mason Mount in the attacking midfield stakes. Meanwhile, a role as deputy to Casemiro and another new acquisition, Sofyan Amrabat, is unlikely to tap into his goalscoring prowess. But intriguingly, while there is no place for the Scotland vintage of McTominay at United, there could well be elsewhere.
David Moyes in particular will rue being unable to add McTominay to a Hammers side that have come flying out of the blocks this season. One wonders how the January window will look if McTominay continues netting regularly in international football. His marauding brand of devil-may-care midfield attack doesn’t suit the tailored discipline of Ten Hag’s football. But plenty of teams could benefit from a player whose 6’4 frame and eye for goal makes him a nightmare for defenders.
England’s back line could be the ones having a fitful sleep tonight after the game at Hampden. If McTominay continues the form he has been showing, he’ll give the Three Lions and manager Gareth Southgate plenty to think about. One wonders if his watching club manager might even have second thoughts about letting him go too. McTominay might not fit into United’s Plan A, but he’s one hell of a Plan B.
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