Having Scott McTominay as Manchester United’s go-to defensive midfielder is not an ideal situation, especially when he’s asked to play as the only number six in a 4-3-3.
The Scotland international has looked impressive this season when given the license to drive forward into the final third, but his defensive nous has been called into question when not played alongside Fred as part of a double pivot.
Ralf Rangnick opted to play Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes in front of McTominay for United’s trip to Turf Moor on Tuesday night, and Burnley eventually took full advantage of the Scotsman’s vulnerability when played as a lone number six.
McTominay can struggle at times when United are in possession. He sits in the shadow of the opposition meaning the centre-backs are unable to play the ball into him and the team’s progression is slowed down – far from ideal in a side managed by Rangnick.
United would probably look a lot more defensively sound if they moved back to the double pivot, but if they did this Rangnick would be unable to get the best out of Pogba and Fernandes in the dual-eight roles.
And there may be another reason he’s persisting with the tactic.
In Pep Guardiola’s first season in the Premier League, the Manchester City boss identified that his biggest issue was in defensive midfield, but he wasn’t naive enough to believe the issue could be resolved overnight.
With the future in mind, Guardiola decided to play an aging Yaya Toure in the number six role, meaning Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva were afforded the freedom to play further up the pitch.
Toure was never going to be the long-term option in defensive midfield, but De Bruyne and Silva were given the opportunity to build a partnership ahead of him and we all know how fruitful that combination turned out to be.
If United are to persist with the 4-3-3 beyond this season, they will be looking to sign a defensive midfielder in the summer and they will also need to replace Pogba if he decides to leave. But the style of play the club may look to use will already be instilled in the team.
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Giving the players who are going to be at Old Trafford next season an understanding of what will be expected of them is crucial.
It seems unlikely that the 2021/22 season will be fondly remembered by many United fans in the years to come, but it could be the campaign where the foundations were laid for future success.
If playing McTominay in the lone six role is what’s needed to make that happen then so be it.
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