If Jose Mourinho was complimentary about Scott McTominay in his press conference after Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Chelsea, he was only more enthusiastic in private. Many around the club were struck. “Jose’s appreciation for the player is only growing,” was one line.
So much for McTominay being a mere patsy in some kind of personal Mourinho battle with Paul Pogba. So much, too, for this manager being unwilling or just philosophically unable to carry on United’s youth principles.
There is an ironic twist to that, though, since so many involved in United’s youth set-up wouldn’t exactly have expected those principles to be carried in this way, through this player. There’s also a very interesting story about McTominay, one much better than his supporting role in the Pogba saga.
The bottom line is that, for some at the club, McTominay has “come from nowhere”. Or at least as close to nowhere as you can get as a United youth graduate. He certainly comes from almost no minutes of football, and this is what really makes it remarkable.
Between the summers of 2013 and 2016, McTominay started a mere 12 games for United’s under-18s - an average of four a season. It was only when he got a growth spurt - 10 inches in 18 months from when he turned 18 - that he was moved up to the under-23s for 2016-17, and that was initially as a forward. He has never played for either England or Scotland’s youth teams at any level, and players considered “far, far better” from his age group have left United.
And yet here McTominay is, right in the centre of the team of one of the biggest clubs in the world, and who could yet prove this season’s Champions League winners.
There he is, too, getting so praised by one of the most infamously demanding and hard-edged managers in the game. Mourinho is a figure who once said he only needs 10 minutes to see if a young player is ready or not, and he since has been ready to give McTominay 923 minutes already this season. He very much likes what he sees.
Those at United are naturally delighted for the player, but also wondering how it happened, given that there was just never the same buzz about him or expectations as so many of his youth teammates. As Mourinho himself admitted after the FA Cup win over Huddersfield Town, the 21-year-old “last season was almost leaving the club to go somewhere, who knows where, who knows in which division he’d be playing now”. That says enough.
Part of the reason for the rise is of course McTominay’s hugely impressive application and resolve, and part of if it is how that specifically fits what Mourinho wants.
At six-foot-four, he certainly fits Mourinho’s physical profile for a midfielder, effectively replacing Marouane Fellaini in that regard. He also has the manager's ideal attitude, something hinted at when Mourinho mentioned his humility and lack of affectations. McTominay has been described as an ideal “blank canvas” for the United boss, since the Portuguese can give him specific tactical instructions that will be rigorously carried out. He is essentially uncluttered by the more expressive abilities of some underage teammates who were expected to make the jump before him.
Mourinho’s words after the win over Chelsea were similarly telling in that regard.
“We are starting from the basics and the basics he’s doing wonderfully well.” That has involved stealthily tracking opposition players like Ever Banega and Eden Hazard, and steadily keeping play ticking over with his passes.
Some senior teammates have started to encourage McTominay to show more ambition in his play, and Mourinho has spoken of how he expects him to start scoring soon. “He has that talent.”
He has already more than fulfilled the ambition of some of his old youth teammates, who can still only dream of such an opportunity.
It remains to be seen how far McTominay can go, and whether he’ll be a Luke Chadwick or a Darron Gibson or Darren Fletcher in terms of United status; whether he is a lower-level player just benefitting from current circumstances, whether he’ll eventually be sold on to another Premier League club, or whether he can really establish himself.
Some at the club have already changed their view, and feel McTominay will be there as long as Mourinho will be. Either way, the manager seems to have found a favoured youth graduate.
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