BIRMINGHAM, England — Erik ten Hag might just have turned a corner at Manchester United after making it five wins from six with a 2-1 victory at Aston Villa on Sunday, but no matter how many of his big players are now available to him, the guy he didn’t want continues to be the one who delivers when the team needs it the most.
No player in Europe’s major leagues has scored more winning goals in the final 30 minutes than Scott McTominay this season. The Scotland midfielder, who Ten Hag was happy to offload to West Ham United last summer, stepped up again at Villa Park after being introduced as a second-half substitute.
The 27-year-old’s 86th-minute header from Diogo Dalot‘s cross sealed the win for United, and it might turn out to be one of the biggest and most important goals scored by any of Ten Hag’s players this season. It is the third time McTominay has rescued United in the final half hour of games and none of his teammates comes close to his ratio of a goal every 172 minutes. Rasmus Højlund, who scored United’s first goal, is second, more than 100 minutes behind on 275 minutes per goal.
“Scott [McTominay] is great,” Ten Hag said after the match. “He can score many goals. He’s always coming into positions to score goals. We had problems, it was too much like a tennis match, we had problems in the counterattack, but we knew Scott would get into the box and can score goals.”
By turning a draw into a win, McTominay gave United renewed hope of a surge into the top four before the end of the season and securing Champions League qualification. United are six points behind fourth place Tottenham Hotspur and five adrift of Villa after claiming all three points — without the win on Sunday, that gap surely would have been too big to close.
It may still turn out to be 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 they are now finally — after 24 games — out of negative equity in terms of their goal difference, which stands at zero after this win. To put that into context, leaders Liverpool have a plus-32 goal difference.
Incredibly, though, after nine defeats already in the league, United still have a chance of finishing in the top four. During the darkest days that saw the team lose against Nottingham Forest, West Ham and AFC Bournemouth, as well as crash out of the Champions League by finishing bottom of their group, Ten Hag repeatedly said that things would be different once his injured players returned to action.
Martínez has since suffered another injury — the former Ajax defender is out for eight weeks with knee ligament damage — and Luke Shaw was replaced at half-time after being injured against Villa, a decision described as a “precaution” by Ten Hag. United were able to ride out the storm at Villa without both players, though, so maybe improved results and morale are giving United the strength to win games that they would have lost earlier this season.
Other things have worked out for Ten Hag too, though. Højlund has finally hit a run of goal-scoring form having broken his Premier League duck in the home win against Villa on Dec. 26 — his goal at Villa Park was his fifth consecutive league game with a goal — and Kobbie Mainoo, the 18-year-old midfielder, has become a fixture in the team since making his first appearance against Everton at the end of November.
So Ten Hag is beginning to enjoy some consistency in terms of team selection and results are improving as a consequence, but make no mistake, United rode their luck at Villa and they remain a work in progress.
Marcus Rashford, substituted on 73 minutes, continues to struggle for form with his decision-making close to goal letting him down too often. Casemiro found the pace tough against Villa’s energetic midfield and Dalot is continually exposed by Alejandro Garnacho‘s lack of defensive discipline on the right flank.
Against the top teams, United risk being overrun in midfield and their wastefulness in front of goal could prove costly, but being out of European competition might help in terms of conserving energies by reducing the workload of Ten Hag’s injury-prone players.
With 14 games left to play, the task for United is clear, and they have at least given themselves a fighting chance of achieving what would be a remarkable turnaround.
“It is a massive win for us,” Ten Hag said. “We’ve got closer and that was the aim for today. That was absolutely our target and we’ve done it.”