How do you stop Scott McTominay? It’s a question plenty of international managers are asking right now, with England’s Gareth Southgate the next to come up with a plan to nullify Scotland’s goal-scoring midfielder when the two sides meet in Glasgow on Tuesday.
On the international stage, McTominay is in the form of his life and sits joint top of the Euro 2024 qualifying scoring charts, alongside Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku and Manchester United teammate Rasmus Hojlund of Denmark, with six goals. But when he will get the chance to replicate his Scotland form for United is anyone’s guess.
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The strange case of McTominay is one that has had many precedents over the years, in terms of footballers who disappear off the radar with their club teams but become stand-out performers for the national side.
Gareth Bale is perhaps the best recent example. The former Wales forward spent almost half of his nine-year period at Real Madrid on the fringes at the Bernabeu, albeit picking up a glittering collection of silverware along the way. Yet once he pulled on the red shirt of his country he developed something close to superhero qualities.
Even Wout Weghorst, a centre-forward who scored just once during a dismal loan spell at United last season, has netted twice in his last two games for Netherlands to boost their Euro 2024 prospects.
Scott McTominay has barely featured for Manchester United this season. Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images
But McTominay is a different story. The 26-year-old has registered just seven minutes in the Premier League for United this season, despite the team struggling for form and clearly lacking energy and tenacity in midfield. The club made no secret that the player, who has been at Old Trafford since the age of five, was available for transfer in the summer. West Ham United and Fulham were both strongly linked with the player.
Bale was simply lost among an array of superstars in a winning team at Real, while Weghorst was clearly out of his depth at Old Trafford. But McTominay is being overlooked by manager Erik ten Hag at a time when United spent the final days of the transfer window desperately trying to fund a loan deal for Fiorentina midfielder Sofyan Amrabat having already spent £55 million on Chelsea’s Mason Mount.
So how can a player be so impressive for his national team, but barely considered by his club?
McTominay hasn’t started any game for United since March, but his habit of collecting yellow cards — eight in the Premier League last season and nine the campaign before — had raised concerns that he could be too reckless when challenging for the ball and therefore a risk in terms of conceding set pieces in dangerous areas.
His goal output at United has also been unimpressive, with just five in all competitions over the last two seasons, but he has almost entirely been used a defensive midfielder during that period.
With Scotland, where he has sometimes been deployed as part of a three-man central defence, manager Steve Clarke has preferred to use McTominay in a more advanced midfield role. The rewards have been evident for player and team, especially in this qualification campaign which began with McTominay scoring twice in a 2-0 home win against Spain in March.
“We know he is good,” Clarke said. “That is why he starts for us. I think he has been playing like that for a little while now.
“With Scotty, we’ve been trying to find a way to play that can unleash him and John McGinn to get forward. It’s nice to have two ball players behind them in Billy [Gilmour] and Callum [McGregor] to control the game.
“It’s good for Scott, if anyone needed reminding, just to show he’s pretty decent. Not that we need reminding.
“But when you’re at one of the top clubs like Manchester United, they’re going to have a big squad and you know they are going to have a rotation. Sometimes you have to bide your time to get your chance in the team. At the moment, that’s what Scott has to do. But I’m sure that once he does get his chance, he’ll show everybody he’s a good player for his club as well.”
If McTominay is to get that chance, it will be down to Ten Hag who may already have decided that the player, who was handed his debut by Jose Mourinho against Arsenal in May 2017, simply doesn’t possess the attributes he desires.
And international football is different to the club game. Four of McTominay’s Euro 2024 goals have been scored against Georgia and Cyprus, minnows of the European qualification zone, so perhaps his performances have been better because of the inferior quality of the opposition, Spain aside.
Scotland’s Scott McTominay celebrates after scoring against Cyprus. Craig Foy/SNS Group via Getty Images
But he is also a player approaching his peak at 26 — an energetic box-to-box midfielder with a physical presence — so he has qualities that United don’t possess in abundance.
And if Ten Hag can tap into the confidence McTominay has generated in a Scotland shirt, he could have important role at United — a club that has made too many expensive mistakes in the transfer market in recent years.
So the ball is now in Ten Hag’s court. Can he smooth off McTominay’s rough edges or will he allow him to leave and risk him reproducing his Scotland form for a Premier League rival?
Clarke has made the task easier for Ten Hag by finding a way to get the best out of McTominay, that’s for sure.