Why Manchester United will be rejoicing the £30m West Ham transfer deal that never happened

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Scott McTominay has been a revelation for Manchester United this season - this is how he went from an outcast to a key player.

Last summer, Scott McTominay was up for sale. West Ham United were in negotiations to bring him to the London Stadium, with both a £30m bid and a £60m joint bid for both McTominay and Harry Maguire turned down. The move never materialised – and Manchester United can be very grateful that it didn’t. Just a year on, they are sitting down to discuss a new contract with a player who has become indispensable at Old Trafford.

McTominay’s current contract runs down next summer, and according to a report by The Daily Mirror, they are looking to double his wages on a new long-term deal. That offer would represent a pretty substantial turnaround in terms of the way he’s perceived both by those in charge at United and in the stands. A year ago, he was a laughing stock. Now, the club can barely get by without him.

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His goalscoring stands out – nine strikes in total, making him United’s second most prolific goalscorer behind Rasmus Højlund. The goals have come not just in volume but at important times. There was the brace against Chelsea in a 2-1 victory. The late, late double against Brentford that won the game by the same scoreline. The winner against Aston Villa. And, most recently, the opening goal against Liverpool in the FA Cup quarter-final. He hasn’t just been grabbing goals, he’s been winning games.

He's doing it for Scotland, too. McTominay hit seven goals in eight European Championship qualifying games for his country and was awarded the Men’s Player of the Year award for his efforts. Without him, Scotland wouldn’t have made it to Germany and without him, United would a great many points worse off.

It’s tempting but overly simplistic to suggest that McTominay’s form has improved dramatically – while he’s playing as well as he ever has, what’s really changed is what his team does around him.

The switch to a more direct style under Erik ten Hag has changed the dynamic completely, and put McTominay in a far better position to succeed at United. Previously, he was asked to be a part of a quick passing game in a condensed pitch. Now, with the games much more open and expansive, his duties instead offer him the chance to make lung-bursting runs from deep and give the attacking players options in the box. Passing is not McTominay’s strong suit – but his stamina, finishing and movement are excellent.

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McTominay’s technique and distribution of the ball hasn’t greatly improved. He still has roughly the same passing accuracy over every distance as he has for several seasons – in fact, it’s actually dropped off slightly. His ball-carrying even seems to have gone downhill. In the 2020/21 and 2021/22 seasons, his dribbling success rate hovered around 75%, which is incredibly high. It’s now down to 47.1% for the current campaign.

And even his finishing hasn’t really hit a new high. His seven goals in the Premier League have come off 5.1xG, all of which is considerably more impressive than he was in front of goal over the last two years, but prior to that he hit eight goals in two seasons at an xG of 3.7. He may have rediscovered his touch and confidence, but there’s little evidence to suggest he’s found a new ceiling. What we’re seeing is a man who is finally playing in the right system for his skill set.

United don’t knock the ball around so much now – they’re looking for fast balls up to the front three and crosses from out wide. Instead of being asked to play quick exchanges around the penalty area under pressure, McTominay must now run himself ragged to make a late run into the penalty area. That’s precisely the thing he excels at, and how most of his goals from have been created. He’s a natural at finding a half-yard of space, good with his head, and composed in the finish.

Before he regained his starting place, largely off the back of that remarkable late show against Brentford, United’s wide forwards would get the ball, look up, and see very few options for a cross. Players like Mason Mount and Sofyan Amrabat (and more recently Kobbie Mainoo) are not natural ground-pounders who can offer a late run into space. McTominay is, and that’s made him a revelation. Just look at his heat maps over the years - every season, a mottled patchwork of red blobs all over the midfield. Now, suddenly, a big red dot slap bang on the penalty spot has emerged. United have found the part of the field he needs to be in to be at his best.

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Of course, he’s a fine defensive player too. He turns the ball over plenty and seldom shies away from a tackle or a chance to get up an opposing midfielder’s nose. He’s always been good at that side of the game, charging around the defensive third and putting fires out as he goes. But now, really for the first time in a United shirt, he has a way to contribute going forward that suits him – and he’s contributing more than almost anybody else in red.

The question, then, isn’t whether McTominay ‘deserves’ a new deal. He’s always put the hard yards in, and even his biggest detractors wouldn’t knock his work rate. The question is whether Erik ten Hag and that direct style of football will still be there next season. If Ineos decide to move on and appoint a manager who takes a different approach, then McTominay may find himself an awkward fit once more.

But what the Scotland international has proven himself a very fine player in the right set-up and with the right framework around him. He’s not the flashiest or most naturally gifted player ever to grace the turf at Old Trafford, but he thrives when allowed to showcase the attributes that saw his rise come about in the first place. As long as United continue to use him in the right way, whether that’s with Ten Hag or someone else, they’ll be glad that they didn’t let him go.

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