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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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer queried the intervention of the linesman after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was retrospectively awarded a goal by VAR in Manchester United‘s 1-1 draw against Arsenal.
Aubameyang was flagged for offside by assistant referee Scott Ledger as he cut in from the right before lifting over David De Gea but technology correctly ruled the Arsenal forward was being played onside by Harry Maguire.
While Solskjaer had no qualms with the decision being overturned, with the goal cancelling out Scott McTominay’s opener, he feels Ashley Young and perhaps even De Gea may have been swayed by the linesman’s flag being raised.
The Norwegian said: “Ashley certainly holds his hand up because he can look straight at the linesman. Maybe he hesitates a little bit.
“He could have probably got a block in and that probably would have helped David but that’s no consolation for us now because it’s a perfectly good goal for them.
“(The linesman) probably should have kept the flag down. He made an impact on the situation by raising the flag. But I’m for the right decisions and they definitely deserved their goal.”
Solskjaer was further aggrieved that United were not awarded a penalty shortly before Aubameyang’s leveller when a loose ball seemed to strike Sead Kolasinac’s left arm, which was not deemed deliberate.
He added: “Loads of the penalty decisions now the refs, if you don’t (give) it, you can’t go back and have it. But it’s a work in progress.”
The two sides have contested some barn-burners through the years but their meeting on Monday night was devoid of quality for large spells, albeit with the pouring rain making conditions tricky.
The result lifted United on to nine points in the Premier League although it marks the first time they have failed to reach double figures after seven fixtures in 30 years.
An upbeat Solskjaer said: “There’s many things that we look at and many things that give me a lot of confidence. We can talk about performances but it’s the results that matter. Six out of the seven games were good performances.
“We need to learn to win these games. We know that this team is going to be improving. I thought we saw some excellent performances from Scotty, Andreas (Pereira), you can see Axel (Tuanzebe) is going to be a top, top player, so some very positive things.
“We’re a bit disappointed with only one point but probably that’s because you’re winning the game 1-0. Then again, both teams probably didn’t deserve to lose.”
Arsenal boss Unai Emery was satisfied with the result, saying: “We wanted to win because we were thinking it was a very good opportunity to get three points but after 90 minutes it’s a fair result for both (teams).
“That result can be a good point if we win on Sunday against Bournemouth at home. We will analyse the positive things and things to improve.
“Defensively I thought we were very competitive and offensively in some moments maybe we could do better to create more chances.”
Arsenal and Manchester United both failed to produce much quality during a 1-1 draw on Monday night.
Old Trafford witnessed an error-strewn performance with Axel Tuanzebe’s stray pass leading to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scoring the equaliser for the away side in the 58th minute.
Scott McTominay’s effort from range handed United the advantage on the stroke of half-time.
Both sides had to settle for a share of the spoils despite an intense last 20 minutes.
Here, we rate the United players.
STARTING XI (4-2-3-1)
De Gea 6 – Looked relatively solid and made a couple of decent saves but was bested by Aubameyang’s classy finish.
Young 4 – A mixed bag defensively though some of his deliveries from set-pieces troubled Arsenal. Some seriously sloppy play as well though.
Maguire 6 – Looked solid and wasn’t troubled too much by Arsenal’s attack.
Lindelof 5 – Suspect at the back and sloppy on the ball. A couple of key blocks though.
Tuanzebe 6 – So nearly a great performance out of position. Superb throughout except for one costly error that led to Aubameyang’s equaliser.
McTominay 8 – Best player on the park. Scored a stunner to break the deadlock, won possession repeatedly in midfield and even went on a few driving runs. Should’ve had a second but headed over.
Pogba 6 – Looks rusty and off the pace. Still, United’s only hope for real creativity through the middle.
Pereira 5 – Uplifting moments mixed in with frustrating ones. Exciting at times but needs to make better decisions.
Lingard 3 – Contributed nothing to this game to the point you forget he was even involved.
James 6 – One of United’s chief threats but slightly lacking with his final ball. His team-mates need to learn to make better use of his pace.
Rashford 5 – Another player who looks rusty. Ran his socks off though and will claim an assist for McTominay’s goal.
Fred (74′) 5 – A wayward shot aside, actually did well to bolster United’s midfield as they pushed forward.
Greenwood (74′) 5 – Made space for a shot brilliantly on the edge of the box but it went harmlessly wide.