Paul Parker has offered his verdict on Scott McTominay. ‘Not good enough for Celtic, might do a job at Rangers’, apparently. Mercifully for the Manchester United midfielder, Erik ten Hag doesn’t seem to have made his judgement just yet which, thanks to Casemiro’s latest indiscretion, gives the midfielder a month to state his case.
Casemiro was devastated at being given his marching orders against Southampton on Sunday and his reaction only mirrored the general feeling among his team-mates, coaches and supporters. Ten Hag himself aside, the Brazilian and his partnership with Christian Eriksen has been the single biggest factor in the Red Devils’ revival this season.
Which makes the absence of both all the more galling for United as they deal with the busiest schedule in Europe while still fighting on all possible fronts. Eriksen’s injury towards the end of January, a consequence of Andy Carroll’s recklessness or the Reading striker’s desire for the following weekend off, was a major blow but one United can stomach. Without Casemiro, United have had their beating heart ripped out.
Marcel Sabitzer was hurriedly borrowed from Bayern Munich when the scale of Carroll’s carelessness became evident but United’s midfield has, more often than many would like, borne more resemblance to the McFred-staffed engine room that was ransacked almost at will by opponents over the last two seasons.
Individually, McTominay and Fred are useful to Ten Hag. Fred has established himself on the periphery of United’s side, in a more advanced role than one of the pivot positions. He wouldn’t be in Ten Hag’s strongest XI, but he would be one of the first the manager might turn to if reinforcements are required.
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That was how McTominay was viewed on Sunday, when Ten Hag sought control of a Casemiro-less midfield. In his absence, too quickly the game against the Premier League’s bottom-placed side became too open and end-to-end. Which might not be a bad thing for entertainment-seeking punters but for those in the technical areas, it’s what they seem to dread most.
After replacing Wout Weghorst, McTominay performed admirably as United’s primary defensive screen. Inevitably, there were times he was outnumbered as United persisted with a front four despite being a man light. But, all in all, McTominay could be satisfied with his performance.
Which is more than can be said for the last time he was trusted to start in United’s midfield. Against West Ham in the FA Cup, McTominay was picked in a side that bore a flashback-inducing resemblance to the pre-Ten Hag era, with the academy graduate screening Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof. Ten Hag, who doesn’t mess about when it comes to making changes, presumably had to curb his urges during a first half in which the Hammers ran all over McTominay, before Casemiro’s night off was abruptly ended at the break.
With Ten Hag unable to call on Casemiro for the next month, in which United will play four vital Premier League games, McTominay has to take his opportunity to prove he can be at least a pale imitation of the Brazilian.
No one else in Ten Hag’s squad carries the same skillset as Casemiro. The 31-year-old screens and sets the tempo from the base of United’s midfield with his passing. United have plenty of passers – but McTominay is their only screener. Kobbie Mainoo has the potential to do both, but it would be a huge gamble on Ten Hag’s part to give the 17-year-old the job of covering for Casemiro after just one senior start in the Carabao Cup.
For another academy graduate, it ought not to be too great a responsibility if McTominay wants to remain at the club he’s been connected with since the age of five. Which he might not.
McTominay is unlikely to earn a regular place in Ten Hag’s XI if the manager has a full squad to choose from. But, as recent weeks have highlighted, the manager rarely enjoys such a luxury. There is certainly no disgrace in accepting a stand-in job when the player you’re covering for is a world-class operator like Casemiro.
But it isn’t for everyone and, aged 26, McTominay may have bigger ambitions and an awareness of suitably-sized clubs ready to help him meet them. Eddie Howe is known to be a fan of his work, while West Ham apparently believe he could be a replacement for Declan Rice.
Regardless of whether he would be satisfied with more of a bit-part role at Manchester United or if grander status appeals elsewhere, a massive month lies ahead for McTominay.