BIRMINGHAM, England – Erik ten Hag might have turned a corner at Manchester United after making it five wins in six with a 2-1 victory at Aston Villa on Sunday, but it doesn’t matter how many of their big players are now available to him . , the boy he didn’t want is still the one who delivers when the team needs him most.
No player in Europe’s major leagues has scored more game-winning goals in the last 30 minutes than Scott McTominay this season. The Scottish midfielder, who Ten Hag was happy to transfer to West Ham United last summer, stepped up again at Villa Park after being introduced as a second-half substitute.
McTominay’s header in the 86th minute Diogo DalotThe cross sealed United’s victory and could go down as one of the biggest and most important goals scored by any of Ten Hag’s players this season. It is the third time that McTominay, 27, has rescued United in the last half hour of the game, and none of his teammates come close to his ratio of a goal every 172 minutes. Rasmus Højlund, scorer of United’s first goal, is second, more than 100 minutes behind with 275 minutes per goal.
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“Scott (McTominay) is great,” Ten Hag said after the game. “He can score a lot of goals. He is always occupying positions to score goals. We had problems, it was a lot like a tennis match, we had problems on the counterattack, but we knew that Scott would enter the area and could score goals.”
By turning a draw into a win, McTominay gave United new hope of cracking the top four before the end of the season and securing Champions League qualification. United are six points behind fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur and five behind Villa after claiming all three points; Without Sunday’s victory, that gap would surely have been too big to close.
It may still prove an impossible challenge for United to climb into the top four. The chaotic and unimpressive nature of their season so far is summed up by the fact that they are finally, after 24 games, out of negative equity in terms of their goal difference, which sits at zero after this win. To put that in context, leaders Liverpool have a goal difference of plus-32.
However, incredibly, after nine league defeats, United still have a chance of finishing in the top four. During the darkest days when the team lost against Nottingham Forest, West Ham and AFC Bournemouth, as well as being eliminated from the Champions League by finishing last in their group, Ten Hag repeatedly said that things would be different once his Injured players will return to action.
Martinez has since suffered another injury – the former Ajax defender will be out for eight weeks with a knee ligament injury – and Luke Shaw was replaced at half-time after picking up an injury against Villa, a decision described as a “precaution.” ” by Ten Hag. However, United were able to weather the storm at Villa without both players, so perhaps the improved results and morale are giving United the strength to win games they would have lost earlier this season.
However, other things have also worked for Ten Hag. Højlund has finally put together a good scoring streak, having broken the streak in the Premier League in the home win against Villa on December 26 (his goal at Villa Park was his fifth consecutive league game with a goal) and Kobbie MainooThe 18-year-old midfielder has become a fixture in the team since he made his debut against Everton at the end of November.
So Ten Hag are starting to enjoy some consistency in terms of team selection and results are improving as a result, but make no mistake, United were lucky at Villa and remain a work in progress.
Mark Rashford, substituted in the 73rd minute, continues to struggle for form and his decisions near goal let him down all too often. Casemiro struggled for pace against Villa’s energetic midfield, and Dalot is continually exposed by Alejandro GarnachoThe lack of defensive discipline on the right flank.
Against the best teams, United run the risk of being overwhelmed in midfield. His profligacy in front of goal could prove costly, but being out of European competition could help in terms of energy conservation by reducing the workload of Ten Hag’s injury-prone players.
With 14 games left, United’s task is clear and they have at least given themselves a fighting chance to achieve what would be a notable turnaround.
“It’s a big win for us,” Ten Hag said. “We’ve gotten closer and that was the goal for today. That was absolutely our goal and we’ve achieved it.”