Scott McTominay has early advantage in new Manchester United midfield battle



The first pre-season friendly of the summer is never going to throw up many tactical clues for the campaign ahead, especially when so many of Manchester United’s first-team stars remain on holiday.

Of the 23 players to feature at Pride Park on Sunday only two – Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Mason Greenwood – are likely starters against Leeds United on August 14 when the serious business gets underway.

For now these games are an exercise in building match fitness but as the clock begins to tick louder and the summer games take on more significance a few patterns may emerge.

The most interesting probably lies in midfield and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s plan to throw off the shackles this season, at least on occasion. The Norwegian has been fairly loyal to his 4-2-3-1 system at Old Trafford but he could turn to a 4-3-3 at times this season, a change of shape that will have significant implications in the middle of the pitch.

It will allow Solskjaer to play two of Donny van de Beek, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes in more attacking midfield roles, as central No. 8s, even if that will mean Fernandes is pulled back a little from his current role as a No. 10. But it will also spell the end of the McFred midfield partnership.

Scott McTominay and Fred had made an unlikely couple, the Scotland international and the Brazilian international who threw a protective shield over the back four. They did the job excellently in the biggest games but could leave United short of game-breaking quality when they were expected to be on the front foot.

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If Solskjaer opts to shield just one holding midfielder this season, placing greater faith in the ability of Harry Maguire and, hopefully, Raphael Varane to defend in one-v-one situations, then the partnership between McTominay and Fred suddenly becomes a contest.

There’s an argument that neither quite has the skillset to play as a holding midfielder on their own and that they’re actually better together, but if United don’t sign a starting defensive midfielder this summer – and that seems unlikely at the moment – then one of them is likely to get the job. While Nemanja Matic might edge both in his reading of the game and his natural ability to play a holding role, he might lack the energy and ability to cover ground that McTominay and Fred have.

McTominay is a versatile central midfielder and he’s been used further forward at times by Solskjaer, but he’s also played at centre back for Scotland and he clearly reads the game well. His height and physicality is a bonus in the position.

Fred might lack that height but he packs plenty of bite. His renaissance in national colours this summer will have him brimming with confidence when he returns to Carrington in a couple of weeks.


It might be that Solskjaer considers their roles on a horses-for-courses basis, but for now McTominay has the chance to make his impression first. His character is a major plus for United and he returned to pre-season training at United’s week-long Pennyhill Park training camp on Monday. That will be two weeks ahead of Fred, who only saw his season end last week with Brazil’s Copa America final defeat,

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While tactical work won’t be a priority just yet McTominay will still be keen to lay down a marker in the next couple of weeks. He should get the friendlies against Queens Park Rangers, Brentford and Preston to make an impression.

We’ve certainly not seen the end of the McFred partnership, even if Solskjaer commits to a more adventurous midfield there will be occasions when he relies on that security, but they are likely to be used less often as a pair, which will fire the starting gun on a battle where one might have to get the upper hand. McTominay will get his shot first.

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