The prospect of the transfer window slamming shut at the start of this month without the addition of a defensive-midfielder was a scenario that Manchester United’s fans could not have imagined.
Last season had not even reached the halfway mark and it was already evident that United needed to recruit a holding-midfielder this summer just gone as a top priority. Failure to sign one would have resulted in a big fan backlash.
After earmarking Frenkie de Jong as their leading midfield target before the window had even opened, it was clear that United manager Erik ten Hag was not as concerned about the lack of a world-class defensive-midfielder as some of the fans. De Jong is a midfielder that likes to get on the ball, dictate proceedings and break through the lines.
But the 4-0 defeat to Brentford highlighted just how dearly they needed a defensive-midfielder. The Bees ripped United apart at the Gtech Community Stadium and their midfield woes, not for the first time in the last 12 months, were exposed.
By the time United kicked-off their next Premier League fixture, facing Liverpool nine days later, they had recruited one of the best defensive-midfielders in the world, landing Casemiro from Real Madrid. It was a statement signing and one that caught almost everyone by surprise.
The Brazilian’s arrival at Old Trafford was greeted with a collective sigh of relief; it was a signing that United needed and he was instantly considered as the missing link in Ten Hag’s rebuild. But exactly four weeks since he was unveiled to the fans before kick-off against Liverpool, he is yet to start a Premier League fixture.
That is because of the form of Scott McTominay. The midfielder, who has often been the scapegoat for United’s recent troubles, has responded to the signing of Casemiro by stepping up and raising his overall game.
He has started five of United’s opening six league matches this season and has started every one since Casemiro joined the club. Many expected the Scotland international to be instantly dislodged by the Brazilian, such was the need for United to add a new defensive-midfielder to their ranks.
But to McTominay’s credit, he has stepped up and produced a series of encouraging performances, with his display in the 3-1 win over Arsenal just over a fortnight ago ranking as one of the very best he has ever produced in United colours. He was excellent alongside Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes in midfield, justifying Ten Hag’s decision to stick with him and refuse to tinker with a side that had won its last three matches.
Casemiro earned his first meaningful chance against Real Sociedad in the Europa League opener and failed to impress. His best passes were produced via his head and it was no surprise to see McTominay reclaim his place for the 2-0 win over Sheriff Tiraspol last Thursday, as Ten Hag reverted back to his strongest line-up after the two league fixtures either side of the trip to Moldova were postponed.
Although he was taken off at half-time, McTominay controlled the game well and played a small part in both goals. The opposition may not have given him much of a test defensively but he did what was expected of him.
It is why he deserves praise for the way he has responded to the signing of Casemiro. He’s raised his game and become a key figure in Ten Hag’s thinking, even though there is a general feeling that the Brazilian, eventually, will dislodge him in the Dutchman’s strongest starting line-up.
But while McTominay has restricted one new signing to limited opportunities, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw have been dislodged by other new arrivals, losing their places to Lisandro Martinez and Tyrell Malacia respectively. Maguire and Shaw started the opening two Premier League fixtures and, between them, have started just one game since, with the former being handed a start in the defeat to Sociedad.
Maguire played on the left of the centre of the defence last season and has been dislodged by Martinez, who is forming a strong partnership with Raphael Varane, who replaced Maguire in the team after the defeats to Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford. Shaw, meanwhile, has been demoted in the left-back pecking order and overtaken by Malacia, who has been superb since being awarded his debut against Liverpool.
Maguire and Shaw made it easy for Ten Hag to take them out of the side, each producing uninspiring performances in the opening two games. While those two faltered, opening the door for their new colleagues, McTominay has responded in the best way possible.