Regularly featuring in Manchester United’s starting XI since the 2019/20 season, Scott McTominay has become an important midfielder for United over time, and that importance has perhaps grown given the lack of midfield arrivals to Old Trafford over the summer. McTominay has more often than not played alongside another midfielder, be that Paul Pogba, or Fred more synonymously, in a double pivot. The latter combination has had its critics and its praisers, but what else is there to make of McTominay?
They are both heralded for their prolific numbers for take ons and ball-carrying. They are both a mid-table Premier League’ sides main outlet at bringing the ball closer to goal. They can both play out wide or in a more central role. In this sense, Allan Saint-Maximin and Adama Traore are, therefore, similar attackers.
Yet when you further inspect their approaches to taking on defenders and by extension their overall games, you may begin to notice how both are quite different.
Here is an attempt to showcase those core similarities that comprise of subtle differences.
Not to put too much pressure on Jude Bellingham, but he’s only 18 years-old and already looks like a well-rounded package in Borussia Dortmund’s midfield. Composed on the ball, versatile and with a real balance to his game, Bellingham stood out in Dortmund’s opening Champions League Group C game. Eventually just edging it in a 1-2 win away from home against Besiktas, Dortmund did take a two goal lead in the first-half, with Bellingham scoring and providing an assist.
Head coach Marco Rose, who was appointed this summer, set up his Dortmund side in a 4-D-2 as already done in opening games of the Bundesliga. Here, Bellingham featured on the right-side of the diamond, with Mahmoud Dahoud anchoring, Julian Brandt to the left, and Marco Reus playing as a no.10 in behind two forwards.
For the first 20 or so minutes when Dortmund were set up this way, Bellingham had his fair share of responsibilities. He was expected to break forward and support the attack, either via making runs and/or in combinations, but also press higher the pitch, as well as support right-back Thomas Meunier as Besiktas attacked down their left-wing – which they often did.
But even though Besiktas at times threatened, especially when Miralem Pjanic had the space to pick out and play long passes from deeper positions, it was Dortmund who took the lead inside 20 minutes, through a well-worked switch of play leading to Bellingham being fed inside the penalty-area.
Dortmund had possession in Besiktas’ half with all of the latter’s men behind the ball. The ball being squared backwards to Dahoud at the base of Dortmund’s diamond midfield.
Both full-backs pushed high up the pitch, providing the width in attack, and Dahoud switched the play long to Meunier on the right…
Whose first-time pass, which took good technique, met the underlapping run from Bellingham. Bellingham’s run was made between two defenders and down the right channel. It was a clever run given the space that it occupied inside the box which enabled a direct goal scoring chance.
Bellingham’s first touch took the ball away from the nearest defender, and his subsequent shot nutmegged the goalkeeper and found its way into the far bottom corner.
Dortmund’s goal may have highlighted the benefits of playing a diamond in possession, but afterwards there was a switch of shape. The away side adopted a 4-2-3-1, perhaps to offer more protection in the wide areas against Besiktas’ attacks. This oversaw Bellingham drop into a double pivot alongside Dahoud, and Brandt move wide right, although Bellingham was still able to advance forward.
And on the left-wing, Bellingham received a throw-in against an arguably lacklustre press, and advanced into the box. For the second time when inside the box, Bellingham created that extra yard of space for himself with his first touch, taking the ball away from the nearest defender, and the midfield then cut the ball back to centre-froward Erling Haaland, who converted. Bellingham now had an assist as well as a goal to his name.
Dortmund began the second-half two goals ahead, and although they retained the 4-2-3-1 from the end of the opening 45, Bellingham moved into a wide right role, after Brandt was replaced by holding midfielder Axel Witsel.
Below are the three positions Bellingham occupied against Besiktas.
This was somewhat like Bellingham’s role in the initial diamond shape, wherein he needed to support the full-back when defending against wide attacks, and had to take up similar positions to receive passes and was more important in attacking situations than when playing in the pivot. There is a sense of versatility to Bellingham’s game that pays due to his balance and range of qualities, making him a useful asset to this Dortmund side.
Bellingham even had a chance to score for a second time. The shot with his weaker left foot was saved, but it was more that he was had the awareness to make the run into space in front of the box quickly to receive the lay-off from Haaland during a transition that shield be made note of.
The game proved tight as it came to a close, with Besiktas drawing the deficit to just one in stoppage time courtesy of a Francisco Montero header. But this took nothing away from the balanced and assured nature to Bellingham’s display, where he carried out an array of attacking and defensive tasks. If we look at the statistics, Bellingham completed 5 of 6 dribbles, 10 of 16 duels, made 7 recoveries, and completed 85% of his passes.
Bellingham not only showed that he could possibly have a building eye for goal, having already scored 2 goals – half of last season’s total, but also how he should continue to develop and feature regularly for his national side.
In the ever-evolving game of football, player roles change depending on the style the coach wants to implement. Therefore, the same position on the pitch can have different purposes and responsibilities to different systems and players.
In football right now, the most important position might be one of the holding midfielders. The position is perhaps the one that can differ the most from team to team.
With the new Premier League season having recently kicked off, and now we again go through another round of World Cup Qualifiers, there is another chance to assess each area of the squad which featured in this summer’s Euros and what lies ahead. What options has manager Gareth Southgate got at his disposal looking ahead to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar? What plans could be put in place for further success?
Obviously Liverpool missed Virgil van Dijk from a defensive standpoint last season following a long-term injury suffered in a Merseyside Derby. But Liverpool also missed their first-choice centre-back’s ability to launch attacks with his range of lofted passes.
Whether they be from a position closer to goal, or when Liverpool’s defensive line pushes closer to the halfway line, van Dijk is excellent at picking out players making runs, or in space in the wide areas to receive the ball, igniting an attack essentially at the click of a finger.
And this was evident in their recent 2-0 win versus Burnley to make it two wins from two in the new season.
In the lead up to Liverpool’s second goal, the ball was recycled back to van Dijk. But almost straight away, van Dijk sends a long-range diagonal ball from left to right, feeding midfielder Harvey Elliott in space.
Elliott then cut inside and passed to Trent Alexander-Arnold, who then set up Sadio Mane in the penalty-area to convert a well-worked move.
It’s not simply the execution of the ball itself, but the effect it had. Burnley’s high press encouraged Liverpool to recycle possession, and as Jordan Henderson passed back to van Dijk, the left-sided centre-back had the nearest passing option, Naby Keita – who had dropped deeper to support, closed down. It’s impressive how in that time, van Dijk picked out the option that was both out wide and further forward, before releasing and increasing the tempo of play with one pass.
What followed further up the pitch is also worth noting on, as Alexander-Arnold, who is not your typical right-back, had expectedly rotated positions with Elliott – the right-sided midfielder.
Alexander-Arnold receiving the ball in the channel drew out one Burnley defender before playing the final ball to Mane who subsequently had a fair amount of space to run into inside the box.
van Dijk’s involvement in build-up is significant to Liverpool’s attacks. In Liverpool’s 2019/20 title winning season, van Dijk averaged 4.88 progressive passes per 90, whilst also a completing 16 long passes per 90.
van Dijk only played a full 90 minutes four times last season, and this was only one facet of Liverpool lack of a consistent partnership and by extension lack of consistent displays at the heart of defence. To compare, Nathaniel Phillips, the centre-back with the most completed 90 minutes (16), averaged 3.70 progressive passes and 9.81 long passes per 90 last season.
Although these are in isolation respectable numbers, it is arguable that van Dijk’s absence limited Liverpool’s chance creation.
This time around, however, Liverpool, you would think, are set to be more consistent, both at the back and when going forward.
Utilising Paul Pogba on, or at least towards the left-side with room to drift into the final-third, is something that could easily become more permanent. Pogba featured in this role towards the end of the previous campaign, and continued his impressive form there in spectacular fashion, notching not one, but four assists against a Leeds United side that, in fairness, once again played into Manchester United’s hands.
Following the departure of manager Roy Hodgson after four years, Crystal Palace appointed Patrick Vieira. This is merely one facet of what is a massive rebuild from the squad to the club’s identity, with much of the in-between lying on Vieira’s shoulders.
It would not be an argument to totally shy away from, given his development and form over the course of the past season with Manchester United, which has now extended to this year’s European Championships. Both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and now Gareth Southgate are honing Shaw’s range at both ends of the pitch.