The answer to Manchester United’s defensive midfield problem could be staring them in the face

Manchester United supporters were absolutely delighted to see Scott McTominay return to action against West Ham on Sunday.

The Scotsman underwent surgery in August having picked up a groin injury and wasn’t expected to return to the side until October. However, he’s made a rapid recovery and his display at the London Stadium showed just why United fans were so desperate to see him back.

He had a 93% pass completion rate, won two aerial duels and completed one dribble – stats which may not sound particularly groundbreaking, but considering it was his first game back he can be pleased with his efforts.

At one point in the game, McTominay flashed a wonderful ball into the feet of Cristiano Ronaldo, and while the pass may not have resulted in a goal, it reminded us of how crucial he can be when United are looking to break through the lines.

Ultimately, it gave us a glimpse of what McTominay can do in terms of transitioning the ball from defence to attack, but like most United fans, you were probably already aware of his progressive play.

McTominay perhaps doesn’t get the credit he deserves given how many positions he’s played in at such a young age. At just 24, he’s already played at centre-back, as a defensive midfielder and as a box-to-box midfielder, and so far he’s yet to look out of his depth in any position.

Most United fans would agree that McTominay is better going forward than he is at defending, and had Ole Gunnar Solskjaer signed a defensive midfielder in the summer, we could have seen the best of the Scotsman as an attacking outlet.

However, United’s inability to strengthen their midfield arsenal means McTominay has been asked to shift his role slightly.

As we can see from the midfielder’s heatmap against Leeds, he likes to surge forward and cover every inch of grass, hassling defenders into making mistakes and helping teammates out in the channels.

However, when we look at his heatmap from the game against West Ham – after the transfer window had closed and it became clear United wouldn’t be signing a defensive midfielder, by the way – we can see the majority of his work was done in the centre of the pitch and there was much less box-to-box work being done.

Is it too soon to suggest Solskjaer has located his plan B having not signed a defensive midfielder?

33-year-old Nemanja Matic is the only defensively-minded midfielder at United, and while he’s definitely still got the quality to play the role, unfortunately, he doesn’t have the legs to play three times a week. Therefore, Solskjaer may see McTominay as the best man for the job.

Given McTominay has experience playing at centre-back he certainly has the defensive nous, and when you consider his ability to play progressive passes through the lines, all of a sudden United could have themselves the defensive midfielder they’ve been searching for.

Most people would agree that McTominay’s best position is as a number eight, but with United lacking a defensive midfielder, their attempts to find a stopgap could actually result in them finding a long-term solution.

Arguably, McTominay is the one midfielder at the club who can attack as well as defend – something Solskjaer recently admitted he looks for in a midfielder – but for now, it may be that he is asked to concentrate on the latter.