Ten Hag’s gamble pays off against Chelsea as McTominay steals show

<span>Photograph: Dave Thompson/AP</span>
Photograph: Dave Thompson/AP

Imagine what Manchester United could do if Erik ten Hag hadn’t already lost the dressing room. Yes, it’s been another of those weeks at Old Trafford: rancour, rumour and recrimination, barbs in the press and barbs at the press, defeat at Newcastle followed by this stirring recovery against Chelsea, and the startling realisation that United are now three points behind Manchester City. It’s still only Thursday, by the way.

Perhaps ultimately this win only buys Ten Hag a few days’ grace, a warm flume of goodwill that lasts only as long as it takes for Dominic Solanke to run through on goal for Bournemouth on Saturday afternoon. Back in the grip of crisis, back in the now-familiar lexicon of surly unsourced stories about dressing room discontent. Such is the way of things at football’s most reliable content provider. This beast must always eat.

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But block out the noise for just a moment, as of course United cannot, and something interesting is happening here. This was a win that felt a lot tighter than it really was: United inexplicably hanging on at the end despite enjoying 28 shots and an xG tally of 4.07. For long periods United played some of their most authentically thrilling football of the season, a doctrine of relentless attack that had Diogo Dalot flying forward from right-back even as the minutes ticked down.

It was also a game that felt more chaotic than it really was. In fact the slippery, slingy nature of the play was largely by design: United hollowing out their midfield in order to throw bodies forward, Chelsea hollowing out theirs in order to leave men up for the breakaway. It was a game that hung on United’s determination to keep allowing Chelsea counterattacks, and Chelsea’s determination to keep messing them up. It was a game, above all, that hung on the curious main character energy of Scott McTominay.

United fans will no doubt note the rich irony in the fact that these days McTominay is basically doing the job they once paid Paul Pogba to do. Marauding midfield engine and late-running goal threat; the all-action superhero who can chip in with 10 goals a season and pull off slide tackles that make the highlight reels. It never quite worked out for Pogba at United, largely – if you believe his most vehement critics – on account of his hair. McTominay is a different kind of player with a different kind of skillset. But for all the undoubted leadership qualities of Bruno Fernandes and Harry Maguire, tactically it is McTominay running the show right now: a development with numerous interesting consequences.

Here he scored his fifth and sixth goals of the season. Previously he has never got more than seven. Where is this coming from? Partly from the fact that opponents have still not quite cottoned on to McTominay’s goal threat, those late runs to the far post, the blur on the edge of the 18-yard box that you don’t spot until it’s too late. But partly, too, it is a function of how Ten Hag is using him.

Unlike his previous more conventional midfield roles, these days McTominay basically has a licence to create overloads wherever he finds them. Against low blocks and structured defences – and nobody is remotely accusing Chelsea of possessing one of those – he provides the extra body in a tightly marked penalty area. But he also pops up in the channels, on the wing, either supporting the man in possession or offering himself for the quick switch of play.

Great times for a great guy. But, of course, if you commit a midfielder to this role, then you leave gaps elsewhere. One of the reasons Chelsea found it so easy to play through United was that, with the forwards pushed high and McTominay as the secret sauce in the final third, there were open spaces every time they played through the press. Chelsea’s goal was a case in point: two simple vertical passes straight through the centre via Mykhailo Mudryk to Cole Palmer, passes that McTominay could see coming but could do precious little to stop.

On another night, perhaps Chelsea score from one of these counterattacks. Perhaps in another game United come up against a better finisher than Nicolas Jackson, who for all his talent looks like a man playing football in a hall of mirrors. This is the high-wire act that Ten Hag is enacting: a daring gamble that United will gain more going forward than they lose going back.

That once Lisandro Martínez and Raphaël Varane come back, once he brings the defensive line up 10 yards, once Rasmus Højlund hits some form, once Mason Mount gets up to speed, lawless abandon will begin to resemble a sustainable attacking blueprint. That he can shout down the noise in the short term while building something in the long term. Right now, in the raptured afterglow of a big win, it feels like a gamble being won. But best to come back and check in a few days, just to make sure.