MANCHESTER, England (AP) — There is unlikely to be a Twitter emoji for Scott McTominay anytime soon. Don’t expect a flashy haircut or many highlight reels on YouTube for him, either.
In a sense, McTominay is everything that Paul Pogba isn’t. They are both midfielders for Manchester United, but the similarities end there.
And that’s just how Jose Mourinho likes it.
“He’s humble, he wants to learn, yet he doesn’t want headlines or flashes,” the United manager said on Monday in praise of the 21-year-old McTominay, with perhaps a nod to the razzmatazz that invariably follows Pogba. “He just wants to work, improve, and be useful for his team.”
Pogba cost United $116 million in 2016, a world-record fee at the time.
McTominay cost the club nothing to sign, having come through United’s development teams since the age of 5 and signed a first professional contract in 2013.
But right now, entering the business end of the season, Pogba is no longer a guaranteed starter and it’s McTominay — against all the odds — who is more central to Mourinho’s thinking.
United plays Sevilla in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 matchup on Tuesday, with the score at 0-0 from the first match in Spain. It’s possibly the biggest match of United’s season and McTominay seems sure to be in the team, his composure likely important on what could prove to be a nervy evening at Old Trafford.
Often criticized for failing to bring through youngsters at the clubs he has managed, Mourinho has made the development of McTominay one of his special projects in his 20 months at United.
McTominay was handed his debut against Arsenal off the bench at the end of the last season, then started against Crystal Palace in the English Premier League as Mourinho played a second-string team ahead of the Europa League final.
This season, he has played 17 times but increasingly in the bigger games. He was given a man-marking duty against Chelsea dangerman Eden Hazard last month and starred for United on Saturday as it beat Liverpool 2-1.
“I remember his beginnings, when sometimes he was not even on the bench but I was taking him with the team as the extra player,” Mourinho said. “And I remember him clearly in the meetings in the dressing room, at halftime, eating every word, listening to everything.”
McTominay showed experience beyond his years against Liverpool. Groans reverberated around Old Trafford when McTominay played a back-pass in the second half to take the sting out of the game, but Mourinho made a point of applauding on the touchline.
After the game, Mourinho criticized the fans.
“I am upset with the reaction they had with Scott McTominay — a kid of 20 years old was making all the right decisions and they want him to make the wrong decisions, when he decides to break the intensity of the game,” Mourinho said. “It was a wonderful solution and the fans reacted against the kid. That was the bad one.”
McTominay stands out on the field. At 18, he was 5-foot-6 (1.70 meters) but, after a sudden growth spurt, he is 6-foot-4 (1.95m). He keeps things very simple, often passing sideways or backward, and is positionally sound, and does the basics well.
Against Liverpool, he formed an impenetrable midfield block with Nemamja Matic, helping United to keep its shape against Liverpool’s fluid attack.
“He will be a big player for Manchester United,” Matic has said. “When I joined, I saw within a few days he would become a top player.”
Mourinho agrees and it will be fascinating to see how McTominay develops at United in the coming years. Midfield is an area Mourinho is likely to strengthen in the offseason — Michael Carrick officially announced on Monday he would be retiring this summer — so McTominay will face more competition for a place.
It seems he is already ahead of Fellaini and Ander Herrera in the pecking order. Even Pogba is no longer assured of his place.
McTominay will also have international football to add to his schedule going forward, having been called up by Scotland for the first time on Monday.
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