Erik ten Hag seems to have ample attacking talent at his disposal in Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes, who provided 22 and 16 goal contributions each in the last Premier League season, along with summer additions like the talented striker Rasmus Hojlund, and Mason Mount, who joined from Chelsea.
Yet, barring Fernandes, the rest have misfired in their opening months for Manchester United due to a lack of form or injury, leading to the club being in the bottom half of the division for goals scored.
However, during this bleak period, which the club is muddling through, a tall Scottish midfielder has proved to be a shining light, chipping in with crucial contributions for his struggling club.
Scott McTominay has already recorded more goals in the Premier League than he has ever achieved. As it stands, he is also the top goalscorer for Manchester United with five league goals.
When contextualizing that McTominay plays as a defensive midfielder, fans may be bemused about how he has scored so many goals.
A simple but clear explanation for those in the know-how of tactical roles would be that Erik ten Hag deploys him as a “box crasher”. For those unaware of its meaning, we will dive a little deeper to understand the term.
Positions can be misleading as they tend to confine player roles in a box when they would be performing completely different roles on the pitch. For example, strikers have different profiles that can suit specific systems while not fitting others. Gianluca Scamacca struggled to flourish in West Ham United colors last season despite a breakthrough campaign at Sassuolo in the prior year because he did not suit the tactical system.
Michail Antonio provided his verdict on a podcast earlier this year that summarized the importance of tactical compatibility when discussing why the Italian talent did not succeed for the Claret and Blue.
“He (Scamacca) needs a manager who he can play with and have other players come off him, and stuff like that. You can see when the ball comes into him, it sticks, and he’s tidy. How David Moyes plays, it’s more like if you’re upfront, you’re dealing with scraps, and you’ve got to be more of a fighter, and that’s not him.”
Similarly, players of different positions have unique assets that managers should get the best of by tailoring the appropriate role for each player in the team.
Scott McTominay's goals have earn Manchester United 7 points in the Premier League this season, without them, Man Utd would be 13th in the competition.
McStriker. ⚽️⚽️ pic.twitter.com/PznQflNPm2
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) December 6, 2023
When scouring through the midfield section and comparing the attributes listed to those of Scott McTominay, the “box crasher” role appears to be the most appropriate.
As defined by John Muller, a “box crasher doesn’t touch the ball much except when close to goal. More of an off-ball runner than a passer, but will play passes into the box and likes to dribble.”
The data mirrors the same since McTominay records a lower volume of total touches than most Manchester United players while ranking highly for touches in the attacking box – showing that the Scotsman is often not involved in the general play as he diverts attention to making himself available in the penalty box.
These qualities were visible in United’s rare commanding victory against Chelsea in December when McTominay scored twice.
Throughout the match, the Scotsman was barely involved in the build-up as Sofyan Amrabat took charge of those duties but was tasked instead with lurking between Chelsea’s defensive and midfield lines to spot for opportunities to run behind the back line or find space for cut-backs from the wide men.
The opening goal occurred from the latter as McTominay positioned himself in front of Chelsea’s defensive line, which was vacant without a Blue midfielder tracking back. In the meantime, Bruno Fernandes and Alejandro Garnacho were developing an attack on the left wing.
From here, the Argentine looks for a cut-back to Harry Maguire, who unleashes a shot that Marc Cucurella blocks. Furthermore, McTominay is free in the box with Moises Caicedo caught in no man’s land.
The ball rebounds favorably for Scott McTominay, who slots his shot to the bottom right corner to open the scoring for the match.
Chelsea has not yet clocked Mc Tominay's seam runs at all this game. It can't keep going this way. Two chances already from this, and that's not sustainable. Need to have Enzo tracking that run.#MUNCHE #PremierLeague
— Fahd (@fahdahmed987) December 6, 2023
McTominay handed another warning sign to Chelsea as one of his unmarked box-crashing runs from deep presented United with a glorious opportunity that was well-blocked by Robert Sanchez.
In the scenario below, the United No.39 (white) locates himself between the lines, unmarked again, as the play develops on the left flank.
When Fernandes delivers an inch-perfect cross, McTominay (red) is in space to easily double the lead but misses the opportunity as the header goes straight to the goalkeeper while the rebound was also swiftly saved.
Nevertheless, a similar move eventually paid off in the second half when McTominay got the better of Levi Colwill (blue) as he converted Garnacho’s cross and won the game for United.
McTominay’s remaining three Premier League goals came from his intelligence to be in the correct position at the right time – a skill he developed during his academy days when McTominay played as a striker.
Nevertheless, his box-crashing ability came in handy in the Champions League group stage to give United the lead against Galatasaray and continues to be a weapon for Erik ten Hag’s side.
Has McTominay secured a spot in the team?
Although Scott McTominay is susceptible to going missing in matches while also being occasionally caught out defensively, Erik Ten Hag needs him during this rough period.
McTominay has the potential to change the course of matches with crucial goals at pivotal moments, which is paramount for the Manchester United head coach during a dry spell for his attackers where they have struggled to find their shooting boots.
Although this situation may change when Mount, Casemiro, and Eriksen arrive after their respective injuries, in the short term, McTominay’s form is as meaningful as ever for Manchester United’s survival.