“Scott? Even more fantastic with a manager who never gives a chance to a young guy.”
When pressed further on the performance of the latest player to progress from the Manchester United youth system to the first team, Jose Mourinho reiterated the same point: “Again, with a manager who never gives a chance to young guys, I’m very happy for Scott. [He has] great stability and great personality.”
McTominay was not spectacular on his Champions League debut against Benfica, but nor was he ever intended to be. Mourinho’s choice of words was telling; the 20-year-old was there not just to play alongside Nemanja Matic, but to learn from him. Few guarantee “stability” quite like the Serb.
This was an all-round performance. Matic was the only player to have more touches and attempt more passes. Matteo Darmian was the only player to complete more tackles. Daley Blind was the only player to make more interceptions. Romelu Lukaku was the only player to win more headers. No player completed more dribbles. This was 90 minutes of stability, solidity and security, save for a couple of understandable mistakes from a rookie learning on the job.
For any young player on their full Champions League debut, it was an assured performance. But for McTominay, it continues his remarkable and unique development at Old Trafford.
“I think when I was 13 or 14, if I was at another club who weren’t as patient with me as I was smaller and not playing games, I think they might have thought: ‘We’ll just get rid of him’,” he said last September, going on to describe how, over the previous 18 months – “it’s probably even longer than that” – he had grown from 5ft 6ins to 6ft 4ins. “I always knew I was going to be quite tall but maybe not that tall!”
Such a dramatic growth spurt came with countless issues. McTominay suffered a series of injuries related to his rapid physical development, and the game against Benfica was only his 49th at any level for United from the Under-18s to the senior side since August 2013.
Even more impressive is that, having grown ten inches in two years, he was forced to make the transition from diminutive forward to rangy central midfielder. For a young player already battling changes to his body, this would test his attitude and capacity to learn and adapt.
For McTominay, the path from youth team to first team was never going to be straightforward, but a former teammate had proven it was possible. “Marcus and I were in the Under-16s and we used to do 45 minutes each,” he said of Rashford last year. “We both weren’t capable of playing the full game. That was in the No. 10 role and we’ve both moved positions; he’s gone up front and I’ve dropped back into midfield.”
Mourinho often uses Rashford as an example of his faith in youth, but McTominay is a far more relevant case. Rashford forced his way into contention with goals and performances belying his young years; McTominay will require much more time and patience.
Just as Rashford capitalised on fortune, scoring four goals in two games when Anthony Martial was struck down by injury in February 2016, McTominay has had to rely on circumstance. The 20-year-old was part of the club’s pre-season tour of America in the summer, but returned to the reserves squad by August. It was only when Andreas Pereira decided to leave on loan in search of regular first-team football that Mourinho opted to promote McTominay instead of signing a replacement.
“You have to be ready to fight for a position and I am a bit disappointed that he left,” said Mourinho of Pereira’s choice to join Valencia. “It is not a drama but is a decision that disappoints me a little bit.
“I think his decision can be considered a decision of a young player who wants to play every weekend but can also be considered a decision by a young player that is not ready to fight for something difficult and it’s difficult to play in the Manchester United midfield.”
As a player who has been fighting all his life, McTominay is ready to take the opportunity with both hands.
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