Scott McTominay further underlined during Manchester United’s Carabao Cup win over Chelsea on Wednesday night that he has been the club’s best and most consistent performer this season. But, rather oddly, he was never really destined for this moment.
Most United fans have been in agreement all season that McTominay had been the standout player in 2019/20. The bar was extraordinarily low, but the home-grown midfielder was operating at a level above the others in a squad that appeared devoid of confidence and ideas.
Yet with the rest now showing marked improvement, yielding after three consecutive away wins in a week, McTominay hasn’t been absorbed back into the pack. Instead, the Scotland midfielder has stayed ahead and was seriously impressive against a Chelsea side that had won seven games in a row in all competitions, working tirelessly for the betterment of his team.
McTominay was still a bit-part fringe option last season, even after Solskjaer arrived. He had been in and out of the team under Jose Mourinho in the first half of the campaign and then played just one minute of Premier League football in the new manager’s first two months in charge.
He eventually got his first league start under Solskjaer in a 0-0 draw against Liverpool and was part of the heroic team performance against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, but was still then only an occasional starter for the remainder of the season.
During the summer, few really expected him to kick on, but McTominay has made himself undroppable since August and is among only four United players to have started every Premier League game. Now, the 22-year-old is one of the first names on the teamsheet.
It is difficult to say what McTominay is specifically good at. He isn’t a naturally gifted individual modern fans can fawn over in YouTube highlights. But his determination, attitude and application outweigh all of that, in a similar vein to the way Darren Fletcher became indispensable a decade ago. Less technical but more driven, Players of that mould will always have a place at big clubs.
What’s more, in elite football, natural talent alone is still often less than half the battle.
Nobody could feasibly have predicted McTominay’s rise. Formerly a forward, he was never on ‘Ones to Watch’ lists of academy players tipped to make the breakthrough. Those who follow United’s reserve and youth teams often recall how fairly unremarkable he was at that time.
Although it is hard to believe now, McTominay once struggled because of a small stature, making him a peripheral figure at Under-18 level. It was only a growth spurt, thanks to which his height shot up by more than a foot in just two years, that he now stands an imposing 6ft 3in tall.
The cynical view was that it was height that brought McTominay to the attention of Jose Mourinho in 2017 when he was handed a surprise place on the bench for a Premier League against Swansea.
The former United boss appeared to have an odd soft spot for McTominay, handing him 23 first-team games during the 2017/18 season. He mostly came off the bench, but also got Champions League starts against Benfica and Sevilla, as well as Chelsea in the Premier League.
There was even a conspiracy that Mourinho saw McTominay as a way to answer critics on his youth development record, with the ex-United boss not exactly known for nurturing youngsters.
Yet any such suggestions that McTominay might not warrant place as a United player have been blown out of the water this season. Not everyone can be a teenage prodigy and not everyone needs to be a superstar. At nearly 23, McTominay is more of a late bloomer. But it hardly matters because, right now, he is the club’s best player and is still learning and improving day by day.