There’s a school of thought that in acquiring Harry Maguire this summer, Manchester United were not only investing in a top-quality centre-back, but a future captain.
Maguire, 26, is combative in the air, composed on the ball and already a commanding presence in a Red Devils back-line that has long needed realignment and redirection.
In the early weeks of the 2019/20 season Maguire has been busy; the territory kind of comes with his Old Trafford parking space.
Cajoling team-mates, constructing defensive formations and contributing to attacks at various set-pieces, Maguire has been all-action in the early throes of his maiden Manchester campaign.
And yet, while the Sheffield man forged his leadership path in the harsh environs of the English football league with hometown United, and built foundations in the Steel City with his beloved Blades and beyond, it is another, perhaps surprising, certainly unheralded player, who is showing his captaincy mettle early on for United of Manchester.
Scott McTominay’s career trajectory has sky-rocketed so much in the last 18 months it’s a wonder he hasn’t developed a fear of heights. For a player not considered anywhere near the top of the crops emerging from the club academy in recent years, the Scot has pounced on the opportunity presented to him.
In all honesty, it was an olive branch probably not offered with any genuine – or sincere, knowing Jose Mourinho – thought that McTominay could, or would, ever establish himself as a legitimate member of United’s squad.
He made his first two appearances for the senior side towards the end of Mourinho’s maiden 2016/17 campaign and was then drafted into the first team fully the following season, making 23 appearances in all competitions.
McTominay, 22, stands at 6ft 4in and started out as a striker. His build and athleticism helped hugely in his progression, as did the bitter divorce to the initially happy Mourinho and Paul Pogba marriage.
At times it seemed McTominay’s presence in the team was just to spite Pogba. A prime example being the then 21-year-old starting in place of the club-record signing in the round-of-16 second leg Champions League tie at home to Sevilla in February 2018 – a player with just one prior start to his name in the competition.
It’s been a rapid rise since for the Lancaster-born midfielder, who made his Scotland bow the following month and has amassed 11 caps, while making 16 Premier League appearances last term.
He already has seven this season, starting all of United’s games. His athleticism and Mourinho’s disdain for Pogba are no longer the reasons why.
Athleticism, sure. McTominay possesses a tall, wiry frame that allows him to scurry across the pitch with both plenty of pace and plenty in the tank. But he has become so much more.
Although Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tethers him to the middle of the pitch, allowing Pogba to roam, the rangy midfielder has also displayed a comfort and confidence at getting forward in recent weeks in the absence of France’s World Cup-winner.
A lung-busting run resulted in a penalty against Crystal Palace. His pass sent pacy Daniel James racing away to rocket in the opener at St Mary’s the following game.
And he made a splash as the rain teamed down against Arsenal on Monday, a smashing strike opening the scoring and his own account for the season.
The Gunners game was a perfect microcosm capturing McTominay’s gargantuan progress. He touched the ball more times than any outfield player that wasn’t a defender, nor named Pogba or Matteo Guendouzi.
He made four tackles, more than anyone else in red, and only Axel Tuanzebe made more interceptions than his two.
His huge strides are encapsulated by his productivity on the offensive side of the ball. His goal was one of three shots, only Andreas Pereira took more for United, while his 35 passes were higher than any non-defender on the pitch other than Pogba, Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka.
Only Guendouzi suffered at the hands of the hatchet men more than McTominay – fouled five times.
More than his eye-catching displays, it is the things only a shrewder eye will capture that mark McTominay out as a potential future United skipper.
Rather than revel in the scoring of a thunderbolt that jolted a lifeless game awake on Monday night, McTominay raced over to congratulate Marcus Rashford – struggling for goalscoring form himself at the moment, as well as fitness. At pains to praise the hard work of a team-mate rather than laud his own fine achievement.
This is just one in many acts of leadership. After Rashford scored his second and the game-clinching third goal against Chelsea on opening day, McTominay can be seen vocally leading the celebratory huddle, coaxing colleagues to see the game through.
When James – who lost his father Kevan days before signing for United this summer – made it 4-0, it is McTominay lifting him into the air, embracing him long after colleagues have retreated back to the centre circle. It probably made the diminutive Welshman feel 10ft tall.
The Scot himself has grown immeasurably in stature. As other figures in the engine room begin to feel the heat, Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata’s bodies can no longer get about the field with the same voracity as they once did, McTominay is acclimatising.
His progress is all the more welcome for Solskjaer given the loss of workaholic Ander Herrera during the summer.
In a previous column it was put forward that United will reap the rewards by sticking by their principles and promoting youth, even if in the short term they have to accept failure.
It must be accepted that McTominay is now one of United’s most pivotal players.
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