FRIDAY'S BIG STORIES

Big Scotty McT

Scott McTominay has a thing. Like a kid that's mastered precisely one move in a computer game, he has his thing and he's going to keep doing it. The side-footed shot, hit on the run with his right foot, ideally with a defender to screen the initial contact. Ping!
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And it works. Last night, against Burnley, his first attempt went in. His second attempt, from a little further out, drew a fine save from Wayne Hennessey, although unfortunately for the keeper the ball came back off the bar to Cristiano Ronaldo, unmarked with an open goal, and that only ends one way. McTominay's third attempt, from farther out still, provoked another good save. Three good shots from three.
If there's been one constant in the last few years of Manchester United, it's that the head coach — whether Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, or the new man Ralf Rangnick — has put Scott McTominay in their starting 11. A lack of alternatives, one might suggest, given that United's midfield options are otherwise all very strange in excitingly different ways. A good way to get picked is to be the most normal player in your position.
But it can't just be this. And watching him against Burnley, with a proper defensive midfielder alongside him and so license to roam around a bit, you could see why these various different coaches have all found a job for him. He's tall, he gangles, he gets in the way, he kicks and is kicked in turn, he passes where he's told to with pace and reasonable accuracy, he is always moving, always showing, and he turns up late at the edge of the box ready to do his finishing move. Ping!
Obviously there's a problem. Nemanja Matic is an ancient figure of dust and dry papyrus, and so can't play every week. Neither Fred nor Bruno Fernandes can play like Matic, and while McTominay sort-of can that seems, in light of all the above, a bit of a waste. That United might need a proper defensive midfielder, ideally one that can pass a bit, is not a new thought. But they do, and McTominay does in particular.
McTominay — ping! — got the opening goal, but he wasn't the only player visibly growing into a new role in a new system. Luke Shaw was back to something like his most effective, bustling up and down the line and pinging long balls behind the defence. Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood both looked dangerous, hustling as the two behind the two, although since that two were playing a little wider than previously, we might almost call this a 4-4-2. Everything old is new again.
So United got the win they wanted, and perhaps more importantly got the comfortable win they desperately needed. But two big questions remain. The first is for Burnley, who turned up to Old Trafford well-rested and yet absolutely failed to do what Newcastle did, and get into United's faces. We saw a few days ago that United are there to be rattled, to be knocked out of their stride; that it's hard to settle into a new system when the opposition are all up in your face. And yet Burnley — Burnley! — were extremely polite houseguests. The entire game slid past without a single yellow card, and Old Trafford never once got nervous.
The second question is: where does Fernandes fit into this? With the wingers pushing back towards the wings again, he doesn't seem the most natural fit there, and as we've already established, there's no getting around McTominay. Perhaps he'll end up a second striker, charging around alongside whichever of Edinson Cavani or Ronaldo doesn't need a rest that week. The proper striker stays up high, the wingers stay on the wings, Bruno roams around. It's an easy business, this management lark.
What's that? The defending? Oh, that'll probably sort itself out eventually.

Romelu Said That?

A brief moment of high excitement yesterday, as some quotes from Romelu Lukaku emerged from Italy that looked, on the face of it, to be high treason. Unhappiness at Chelsea, unhappiness with Thomas Tuchel, a vow to be professional in the face of this appalling man and his appalling tactics: just for a second, it looked like we had a full-blown crisis. You get the marshmallows, we'll get the pointy sticks.
It did seem a bit oddly-timed, given that Lukaku has just come back into the first team and is scoring again. And, sure enough, it turned out that the interview was three weeks old, and perhaps not that critical when taken all together. Also it was for a program called We Love You Inter You're The Best Heart-Eyes Emoji — our Italian's a little rusty, but that's the gist — so we can probably forgive Lukaku a little sentimentality for the good old days.
The important thing to note is that since the interview was given, Lukaku and Tuchel have had some big conversations about life, about love, about how one might carve out a just and harmonious existence in a world driven by iniquity and selfishness, and also about the Belgium striker's place in the team. We'd been told about the solution to the problem before we learned about the problem.
So that's fine, right? Right! If only all internal crises could be dealt with so efficiently. Of course, the fact that Lukaku was having a good old moan to a journalist might, if we were being cynical, hint at something wobbly behind the scenes. But we're sure it's all okay now. Let Chelsea march forward in absolute happiness.

The Great Escape?

Last night, Derby County went to play-off chasing Stoke City and won, 2-1. Three days before that, they'd beaten promotion-chasing West Brom 1-0 at home. And three days before that, they'd beaten mid-table Blackpool by the same scoreline.
Seven wins and 10 draws puts Derby on 31 points and slots them comfortably into the middle of the Championship pack with an outside sniff of the play-offs… except, of course, it doesn't, because they were hit with a 21-point penalty at the beginning of the season. So this run of good results moves them from last place to, er, last place.
But it's a better last place. Just four points from Barnsley in 23rd; just 11 from Reading and safety. They are still heavy favourites for relegation, of course, but that's a vast improvement on the near certainties they were when the points were taken away. And however you feel about the state of Derby and how they got into this mess, the fact that the team haven't imploded under the weight of everything else is a credit to the players and to Wayne Rooney's management.
New Year's Resolutions are, generally speaking, for individuals to make about individuals. But we'd like to challenge the football gods to give us something to watch here. Keep Derby up, send Derby down, as you wish. But make it interesting. Give them a chance. Whatever happens, we all deserve to spend some quality time with the idea that a 21-point deduction can be survived.

IN OTHER NEWS

Well, where's he going to put that thing? It's massive. He's probably got a fair-sized house, but still. Should have just got him a bottle of wine or something.

RETRO CORNER

As the players start to disappear from their club squads in preparation for the slightly delayed Cameroon 2021, let's start getting in the AFCON mood. Here, to start us off, is 30 seconds of highlights from the 1978 final, in which Ghana prevailed 2-0 over Uganda. Look at the arc on that opening goal. Parabolic.
And getting a little more recent, here's every goal from Zambia's surprise run to the trophy in 2012. One of those triumphs that gladdens the heart, that opens the windows and lets the light in.

HAT TIP

Always a pleasure to learn something new. And we were delighted to find out that players have been signing for Newcastle United thanks to Goal!, a hero's journey football film which came out in 2005 and was roundly derided by the critics (and, er, immediately forgotten by the Warm-Up). Footballers, though, they quite liked it. Here's Callum Wilson explaining why he chose to go north:
My son is getting to that age now where he's watching more movies and more football. He watched Goal! so I'm sitting there watching it with him and it's all about Newcastle. I got the little boy in me excited and you're thinking, yeah that's the one for me.
Sadly we're still waiting for a new signing to turn up at St. James' Park and tell the world that this is all he's ever wanted, all he's ever dreamed of, ever since he first saw Purely Belter.

COMING UP

A weeknight in late December and no English football? Somebody's dropped the ball somewhere. Fortunately, La Liga is shaking off its slumber and coming to the rescue: Valencia host Espanyol.
Happy new year to those of you that suffer under the tyranny of calendar time, and a pleasant, continued, unmeasured existence to the rest of you. Tom Adams will be here on Monday with the first Warm-Up of 2022.
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