Ralf Rangnick believes Scott McTominay could be Manchester United captain in "a couple of years" and hailed the "outstanding" David de Gea following a 1-0 FA Cup win over Aston Villa.

McTominay scored the only goal of the third-round contest at Old Trafford on Monday, heading home midfield partner Fred's inviting whipped cross after only seven minutes.

That was enough for the Red Devils to set up a fourth-round tie at home to Championship side Middlesbrough, but Villa were unfortunate to crash out as they were the better side.

Danny Ings had a goal ruled out for a foul by Jacob Ramsey on Edinson Cavani following a lengthy VAR check, referee Michael Oliver eventually making the decision after being told to check the pitchside monitor.

Ollie Watkins struck the crossbar in the first half and also had a goal disallowed due to Ings being offside soon after his fellow striker's goal was chalked off.

Amid talk of unrest in the United dressing room following a 1-0 defeat to Wolves, there was relief for Rangnick after a fortunate victory.

The interim Red Devils boss picked out McTominay and De Gea for praise after an unconvincing display from his side.

Asked about McTominay's contribution, he told BBC Sport: "He is an academy boy, his energy is amazing. He now also starts scoring goals and also with some leadership skills.

"I wouldn't be surprised if in a couple of years he would be the captain of this team."

He added: "We have to develop the team into a clean sheet team and that was another one today but still David de Gea was outstanding again for me today.

"I would have wanted him to have less saves in total, I think we had four or five shots on goal but again we can still improve even in that area."

Despite United being second best for the majority of the game, Rangnick said there were signs they are improving.

Asked if he had seen progress in the performance, he replied: "Yes. To say that this was a perfect game, nobody would believe that of course it was not.

"We still have quite a few things we can get better at, but the clean sheet was important today and we worked together. There are still a lot of things to improve but it is easier to do that with a 1-0 win."

Scott McTominay's early header gave Manchester United a fortunate 1-0 win over Aston Villa in the third round of the FA Cup.

McTominay scored his second goal of the season after only seven minutes at Old Trafford on Monday and that was enough to set up a fourth-round tie at home to Middlesbrough.

Villa were the better side, but it was a frustrating night for boss Steven Gerrard in the Liverpool legend's first trip to United as a manager, with Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings having second-half goals disallowed.

Gerrard's side had plenty of chances to at least force extra time in a breathless encounter, but United responded with a victory amid talk of unrest in the camp following a defeat against Wolves.

McTominay got the Red Devils off to a great start, nodding Fred's superb whipped cross from the right beyond Emiliano Martínez

Villa took that early blow on the chin and David de Gea made a fine save to keep out John McGinn's rasping drive, before Watkins rattled the crossbar after producing a lovely piece of skill to beat Victor Lindelof following a poor mistake from the Sweden defender.

Jacob Ramsey's shot deflected narrowly wide as Villa continued to apply the pressure, but they needed a Matty Cash block to keep out Bruno Fernandes' goal-bound strike and a sharp Martinez save from Luke Shaw's long-drive thunderbolt to avoid going two goals behind in an entertaining first half.

Ings thought he had equalised from inside the six-yard box five minutes into the second half, but referee Michael Oliver ruled the goal out for a foul by Ramsey on Edinson Cavani.

There was more frustration for Villa soon after when Watkins applied the finish but Ings had strayed just offside before he raced clear and failed to beat De Gea.

The busy De Gea then palmed Cash's well-struck effort around the post before getting a fingertip on Watkins' strike and although United fans voiced their fury when Marcus Rashford failed to react as the ball went loose following Martinez's save from Mason Greenwood, they were able to celebrate reaching round four.

Manchester United ended 2021 with a comfortable 3-1 win against Burnley at Old Trafford in the final Premier League game before the new year.

Ralf Rangnick's side were looking to bounce back from a disappointing performance in the 1-1 draw at Newcastle United last time out, and first-half goals from Scott McTominay and Cristiano Ronaldo either side of a Ben Mee own goal ensured that they did just that, despite Aaron Lennon reducing the deficit before half-time.

It was Burnley's first game since December 12, having seen their last two fixtures against Watford and Everton postponed due to COVID-19, and the visitors lack sharpness at times at Old Trafford, particularly at the back.

The Red Devils move up to sixth in the Premier League table, while Sean Dyche's men remain 18th.

Both teams had early chances as Chris Wood headed wide for the visitors before Ronaldo surprisingly fired over after being put through on goal.

United were ahead shortly after as McTominay placed a shot past Wayne Hennessey from the edge of the box as Ronaldo looked to set himself up for a left-footed effort.

The lead was doubled on 27 minutes when Luke Shaw linked up with Jadon Sancho, before the former Borussia Dortmund man cut inside to shoot, with his effort being deflected just inside the far post off the boot of Mee.

It was three just eight minutes later after a McTominay strike was tipped onto the post by Hennessey, only for the ball to fall kindly for Ronaldo for a simple tap-in, but the Clarets pulled one back shortly after as Lennon went on a mazy run before placing the ball low into the far bottom corner.

A less eventful second half saw Eric Bailly hobble off with an injury, while Hennessey made a fantastic save with his face from Edinson Cavani after a Ronaldo knockdown to prevent further damage to the scoresheet, but United saw out a confidence-boosting victory.

What does it mean? United finally express themselves under Rangnick

While it was always too early to judge the Rangnick era at Old Trafford, questions were being asked as to why United looked so uninspired in attack at Newcastle considering the wealth of ability in their ranks.

Ronaldo had no reason to storm off in a huff here, though, as the Red Devils created plenty against an uncharacteristically disorganised Burnley, having 12 shots in the first half.

Bruno Fernandes was missing through suspension this time and, after a more promising showing from the team, there are no guarantees that he will walk back into the side for the next encounter.

Shaw, he (sometimes) won't let you down

When the England left-back is at the top of his game, he can influence things as much as anyone, and that was the case here as he caused Burnley all sorts of problems down his side.

He made three key passes, more than anyone else, including a terrific throughball for Ronaldo early on and playing in Sancho in the build-up to the second goal, while also boasting the highest passing accuracy in the opposition half (90 per cent), and put in the most crosses (11).

If this was a response to the threat to his place from Alex Telles since Rangnick arrived, then it appears to be a tactic that has worked for the German coach.

Burnley need wins quickly

It won't quite be panic stations yet for Dyche. His team is in the relegation zone but have games in hand after several recent postponements, although they must convert that ostensible advantage into points.

After 16 games, the Clarets have won just once in the league this season (D8 L7), and despite those games in hand, will be concerned to see only two teams above them who they could catch if they won those games.

They are now without a win in their last 10 Premier League away games (D4 L6), since winning 2-0 at Fulham in May. They last had a longer run without a win on the road between August 2016 and April 2017 (17 games).

What's next?

Manchester United are at home to Wolves on Monday, while Burnley travel to Leeds United on Sunday.

Scott McTominay has left the Scotland camp after contracting a "throat virus", Steve Clarke confirmed.

The Manchester United midfielder will miss Friday's World Cup qualifier at Moldova because of the illness.

Scotland have been training in Spain this week ahead of the trip but McTominay was sent home.

Clarke retains hope, however, that McTominay will be able to overcome the virus over the weekend and be available for selection on Monday when Scotland face Denmark – who have already booked their spot for the World Cup – in their last match in their qualifying group stage.

"Unfortunately, Scott McTominay has picked up a bit of a throat virus, so we have sent Scott home to rest and recuperate and hopefully join us again at the weekend," Clarke told reporters.

Scotland, who are four points ahead of third-placed Israel, need just one win from their final two matches to make sure of second spot in Group F, subsequently confirming their participation in the play-offs next March.

Clarke should be confident of getting the job done without McTominay on Friday given hosts Moldova have taken just one point from their eight matches.

But how the virus develops could impact McTominay's employers, Man Utd.

Should it take McTominay longer than initially expected to get over the illness, he could potentially be a doubt for United's trip to Watford on November 20, which could be problematic given boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is likely going to be without the injured Paul Pogba.

France star Pogba suffered a thigh injury during training for Les Bleus and was sent back to United. While no timeframe has been put on his recovery, reports suggest he could be out until January.

 

Scott McTominay faces a spell on the Manchester United sidelines after undergoing groin surgery just two games into the Premier League season.

The Scotland international will also be unavailable for his country while he recovers, with United not putting a timeline on that prospect.

He was omitted this week from Steve Clarke's squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Denmark, Moldova and Austria.

United said in a statement on Thursday: "Scott has undergone surgery for an ongoing groin injury that was causing significant pain when playing.

"Having tried all other treatment options in pre-season, surgery was deemed necessary to resolve the issue. We hope to have him back soon."

Midfielder McTominay will miss Sunday's clash at Wolves, as United attempt to stretch their Premier League away unbeaten run to a record-breaking 28 games.

It then remains to be seen how well he recovers from surgery, with league games against Newcastle United, West Ham and Aston Villa approaching in September, along with the start of the Champions League group stage.

But McTominay is optimistic his absence will be a short one.

He wrote on Instagram: "Just to let you all know I've had minor surgery on an issue which has needed managing for the last couple of months, I hate missing games so to be missing Wolves on the weekend and the international break is so disappointing but that's part and parcel of the game.

"Wishing all the boys the best of luck and I will be back sooner than you think."

McTominay came through the United academy and emerged firstly as a favourite of Jose Mourinho before continuing his progress under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's leadership.

He has proven a useful member of the first-team squad; curiously, though, United have had a higher win percentage from the games when he has not featured since the beginning of last season.

When McTominay has started, United have won 52.6 per cent of their games (20 of 38), but when he has not been selected in the starting XI that win rate has been 64 per cent (16 of 25).

The points-per-game difference is less marked, however, with United picking up an average 1.9 points with McTominay and 2.0 when he has not started.

McTominay has proven his combative qualities again since the beginning of the 2020-21 campaign, with his duel success rate of 58.17 per cent rivalled only by Nemanja Matic (56.05) among United midfielders.

When it comes to tackles by United midfielders, only Fred (121) and Bruno Fernandes (89) have made more than McTominay (81) in the same period.

Manchester United certainly can't be accused of standing still this year. A day after sealing the signing of Jadon Sancho, they confirmed a new contract for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer until at least 2024.

But there's still plenty to press on with for Solskjaer and United. While the signing of Sancho addresses one area that has been a problem in recent years, it appears there are still two glaring weaknesses in the first-choice starting XI.

It would seem United have identified the man to take care of one of them, with Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane reportedly set to bolster their defensive options. In one sense it will have been a signing long in the making, given the club were supposedly close to buying him from Lens as a teenager only for Los Blancos to get the deal over the line in the end.

Although it took Varane a little time to truly establish himself at the Santiago Bernabeu, he's gone on to enjoy a hugely successful time in the Spanish capital, winning three LaLiga titles and four Champions League crowns, among a host of other trophies.

Below, Stats Perform delves into the Opta data to see how Varane might improve United and where else they could do with reinforcements.

 

Physical dominance is the key

There are some obvious strengths that Varane would bring to United at the back – chief among them is his pace, which they arguably don't have a great deal of at centre-back.

While Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire may not be considered painfully slow, neither boasts the same kind of speed as the Frenchman and that would undoubtedly be a considerable asset for United.

Recent reports have suggested Solskjaer wants to play more attack-minded football in 2021-22, and having a faster centre-back could be crucial in that sense.

In theory, it would allow United to play slightly higher up the pitch. While they didn't exactly defend deep in 2020-21, their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their own goal was deeper than six other teams – Varane's pace could potentially provide them with a little more security in a high line.

In terms of possession, there's not a great deal separating Varane and Lindelof, the man whose position is surely in doubt. The Sweden international averaged fractionally more successful passes (58.1 to 55.9) and accurate passes in the opposing half (17.81 to 17.77) per 90 minutes last season, but that could be a reflection of slightly differing styles of play implemented by the teams rather than ability.

Opta sequence data suggests they are similar as well. While Lindelof (14) may have been involved in four more goal-ending passing sequences, the expected goals (xG) value attached to Varane in those instances is actually higher (8.9 to 8.8), meaning the current United man's influence is likely being exaggerated by particularly good finishing from his team-mates.

Even their ball carrying tendencies aren't hugely different, though Lindelof does boast a greater average carry distance of 11.3m to 10.9m, while his average progress up the pitch of 5.7m is a minor improvement on the 5.4m posted by the Madrid man.

But it could be argued United don't need their right-sided centre-back to be forward-thinking all the time because that's one of Maguire's key strengths. If anything, having a dependable partner could allow for their captain to have even greater prominence going forward, as he may feel more relaxed about stepping up with better protection behind.

 

And that's where Varane could really shine as an upgrade on Lindelof. The Swede's effectiveness in physical duels has been routinely questioned since he joined from Benfica in 2017 – a prime example being when Mbaye Diagne bullied him as West Brom scored in their 1-1 draw with United in February.

While it's impossible to guarantee Varane wouldn't have also been dominated in that instance, he does have a better record in situations where physicality is important. In 2020-21, he won 2.4 aerial duels per game across all competitions compared to Lindelof's 1.8.

That equates to a 72.3 per cent success rate for Varane, as opposed to 59.4 for Lindelof. In fact, Maguire – the most dominant defender in that respect in the Premier League last season (100 duels or more) – only marginally edges the World Cup winner (72.9 per cent).

But when we broaden the comparison to encompass all duels, Varane comes out on top among all three of them (66.5 per cent). Maguire wins 63.8 per cent of those contests, whereas that drops to 53.1 per cent for Lindelof.

United fans have been crying out for a more physically dominant defender to partner Maguire, and in Varane they may have identified a centre-back to rival him in those stakes.

Is the Fred-McTominay axis necessary?

Centre-back certainly isn't the only area United fans would be eager to see an upgrade – there's little doubt they have room for growth in midfield, regardless of whether or not Paul Pogba leaves.

The Frenchman actually featured more from the left during the second half of 2020-21 and looked more comfortable out there with some creative freedom, rather than sitting behind Bruno Fernandes in the middle.

That meant Fred and Scott McTominay were, more often than not, the first-choice pairing at the base of the midfield.

Now, it must be said that both players have clearly improved significantly over the past couple of years and they do offer a lot to United in certain areas.

 

For instance, in the Premier League in 2020-21, Fred won possession more often than any other United player (228) and his 81 tackle attempts were only bettered by Aaron Wan-Bissaka (88). McTominay ranked fourth for tackles (51) and joint-second for fouls won (42), which speaks to his improved ability on the ball as well as a knack for relieving defensive pressure in transition.

But neither are particularly creative. Fred laid on 25 key passes with an expected assists (xA) value of 2.1, while McTominay created 17 chances that combined to an xA total of 0.7.

Of course, you can't expect every outfield player to offer creativity. In many cases a player's productivity – or lack of – is intrinsically linked to the role they're playing or system they're part of, and Fernandes has done a lot of the heavy lifting. But United are a side who generally have more of the ball than their opponents – do they need two 'destroyers'?

 

If Solskjaer is to implement a more forward-thinking setup in 2021-22, he would be wise to finally ditch the Fred-McTominay axis. More often than not, it comes across as extremely conservative.

 

But the caveat to that is Solskjaer's rather limited options. Donny van de Beek endured a pretty dreadful first season as he showed very little authority whenever he played, Pogba was more useful towards the left so his lack of work rate off the ball wasn't exposed, and Nemanja Matic just isn't athletic enough anymore even if he is still a talented ball-player.

Pressure now on Ole

Who's to say if another midfielder, Varane and Sancho will be enough to overthrow Manchester City while also holding off a Liverpool side who promise to be back with a vengeance and defending European champions Chelsea.

But such decisive addressing of the team's weak points should at least give Solskjaer the right tools to work with. It'll then be on him to prove conclusively he's the right man for the job, because further under-achieving with such a strong squad won't be tolerated for long, regardless of his new contract.

Jose Mourinho was sacked less than a year after signing his renewal in January 2018.

Croatia and Scotland face a must-win showdown at Hampden Park in Euro 2020 Group D – something that is not ideal for Zlatko Dalic's side.

In five previous meetings with Scotland, Croatia have never won (D3 L2). They have only faced world champions France (eight times) and reigning Euros kings Portugal (seven) more often without tasting victory.

But Scotland have been hit by a COVID-19 positive for Billy Gilmour after the Chelsea midfielder's man-of-the-match showing in the 0-0 draw with England.

That game at Wembley engendered a feelgood factor around Steve Clarke's squad, despite the fact they remain without a goal or a win in their two matches at the tournament so far.

Indeed, despite the impressive work overall of front two Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes last time out, Scotland have failed to score in five of their past eight matches at major tournaments (W1 D3 L4), with their 30 shots at Euro 2020 all fruitless.

"There’s been a good mood around the camp since we played England," Clarke said.

"I think the performance more than the result is what pleased us. We needed something from the game to make the last game the cup final it is, and we’re all looking forward to it."

Like Scotland, Croatia's haul of one point from two games means victory and hoping to finish as one of the four best third-place teams looks their most likely route through.

"I want this Croatia side to have support from the public, they deserve that, they deserve it for everything they've done for Croatian football," Dalic said. "As long as we have a chance to qualify, we need support."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Scotland – Scott McTominay

Gilmour's absence leaves a question mark over how Steve Clarke will use McTominay for this crunch clash. The Manchester United player reverted to a place in the back three against England, where he was a calming influence – his 54 touches more than any other Scotland player. When he featured in central midfield for the 2-0 defeat to the Czech Republic, no team-mate bettered McTominay's two tackles or three interceptions.

Croatia – Ivan Perisic

Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic are sorely missed and Luka Modric might be straining for the memory of his Ballon d'Or-winning form, but Croatia still have Perisic to fire their hopes of progress. The Inter winger's blistering strike to snatch a 1-1 draw against the Czechs kept them above water in the competition. It also made him the first Croatia player to score at four different major tournaments, with eight goals in such matches overall.

 

KEY OPTA FACTS

– None of the five matches between Croatia and Scotland have produced more than two goals.
– Scotland have only lost one of their past nine matches at Hampden Park, their opening reverse against the Czech Republic. They last suffered consecutive defeats there in 2019.
– Croatia have won only two of their previous 11 international matches across all competitions (D3 L6) and are winless in their past four (D2 L2). Scotland are looking to avoid failing to score in three consecutive competitive matches for the first time since three games between November 2003 and October 2004.
– Nikola Vlasic is the sole midfielder with five or more goals and five or more assists in each of the past three campaigns in the Russian Premier League. The only other player to do so in the competition is Zenit striker Artem Dzyuba.
– Andrej Kramaric is one of the three players to have scored 10 or more goals in each of the past five Bundesliga seasons, alongside Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry.

Scotland legend Ally McCoist has been delighted by Scott McTominay's recent emergence as a key man for both club and country.

The 24-year-old featured in 49 games across all competitions for Manchester United last term as they finished second in the Premier League and reached the Europa League final.

He also helped his country secure their first major tournament appearance since the 1998 World Cup with a play-off victory over Serbia that ensured they will be at this year's European Championship.

It is a development that has somewhat surprised McCoist, who scored 19 times for Scotland across a 61-cap international career.

Speaking to Stats Perform on behalf of official UEFA Euro 2020 partner Heineken ahead of the action getting under way, he said: "I have been absolutely delighted and pleasantly surprised at the massive improvement in Scott McTominay. 

"I thought he was the best player on the park in the Europa final, which was a poor final I have to say. I knew he was capable of playing well, but his level of consistency and performance level for United and indeed Scotland has pleasantly surprised me. 

"I don't want say it in [a way that] is not respectful to Scott McTominay, it's quite the opposite. I've been absolutely delighted with the improvements he has made as a player both at club level and international level. 

"It says as much about Scott McTominay that there's every chance we play him in a position that he doesn't play with Manchester United, probably on the right of a three defensively. It's probably a bit of a surprise but a really pleasant one."

McTominay is not the only member of Scotland's squad who has endured a gruelling season, with captain Andy Robertson having clocked up 50 games for Liverpool.

But McCoist has no concerns about burnout – he instead believes that players will be invigorated by their country's rare appearance at a major tournament.

He continued: "It wouldn't be a concern for me. We can't have it both ways. One of the problems in recent years and one of the reasons we haven't qualified for major tournaments is that we haven't had top players playing at the top level. 

"We've now got top players playing at the top level; Andy Robertson is one of them, [Kieran] Tierney, McTominay, [John] McGinn, the two lads at Southampton [Stuart Armstrong and Che Adams].

"I don't think it's rocket science, we've now got better players playing at a better level and that's one of the reasons we've qualified for the Euros.

"With Andy, obviously it's the Scottish lads' dream to play at a major championship, we haven't done it for 23 years. 

"So boys like that, of course they've had a lot of football, I accept and appreciate that, but they've had a little bit of a break, they're now at their training camps, they've [had] a couple of friendlies – I think they'll be absolutely raring to go. 

"Their enthusiasm and adrenaline will have them so fired up, I think we'll be absolutely fine."

Scotland have been drawn to face three teams all placed higher than them (44) in the FIFA world rankings in England (four), Croatia (14) and the Czech Republic (40).

But with four of the six teams who place third in their groups also going through to the knockout stages, McCoist is confident that Steve Clarke's side can progress.

He added: "I think the great thing from our point of view is the fact that there's a low expectancy level from outside. 

"We obviously want to do well and we'll do as well as we can but we're pretty realistic about it. You look at the group and we're probably outsiders but I honestly believe we can win our first game. 

"England, for example, have just got a far better team and far better squad than us – that's not to say we can't win the game, but they've got one of the most talented squads in the tournament. 

"But I think on our day we can beat the Czech Republic and if we can manage to do that then I think with four teams qualifying from the section in third place, I don't see any reason why we couldn't qualify from the group. I think that's got to be our target, it really has. 

"Is it achievable? Yes it is. It'll be very, very difficult because England, Croatia and the Czech Republic are all top sides, but I think it's achievable."

As part of Heineken's global 'Finally Together' campaign which recognises the long-awaited reunion with fans and the rivalries that go alongside, McCoist stitched up England rival and fellow pundit Jermaine Jenas with the ultimate friendly wind-up – posing in a tailor-made suit emblazoned with the Saltire across the back.

He said: "Jermaine is a dapper fellow who can strike a pose even better than he could a football. 

"We just knew he wouldn't be able to resist the offer of tailor-made suit and a photoshoot.

"Everyone present could see what was on his back apart from him and I took great pleasure in getting him to model it for the camera. 

"Jermaine's face was an absolute picture when he realised he'd been stitched up. This is a victory for the Scots and I'll raise my glass for another one at Wembley!"

Scott McTominay said it was "a total injustice" that Edinson Cavani had a first-half strike disallowed in Manchester United's dramatic 3-1 win over Tottenham.

Uruguay international Cavani thought he had put the Red Devils ahead in the 33rd minute, but the strike was ruled out for McTominay flicking out a hand at Son Heung-min.

The decision was reached after referee Chris Kavanagh was encouraged to review the build-up on the pitchside monitor by VAR.

United's dismay was exacerbated shortly after when Son put Tottenham ahead after some poor defending by Victor Lindelof.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side bounced back in the second half, though, courtesy of goals from Fred, Cavani and Mason Greenwood, to extend their unbeaten away run in the Premier League to 23 games – a run only bettered by Arsenal between April 2003 and September 2004 (27 games).

McTominay claimed the referee "obviously made a mistake", but he acknowledged players will have to get used to that with VAR now an integral part of the game.

"I'm sure there'll be a lot of talk about that," McTominay told Sky Sports.

"The referees have to make decisions, that's part and parcel of the game. I'm personally not a fan of VAR but it's part of the game we're playing now.

"For us it was a case of keeping calm. It was obviously a goal, the referee has obviously made a mistake, but it happens, everyone makes mistakes in life, that's part and parcel of it. Nothing bad to say.

"For us, it was a total injustice, but you've got to get on with the game, can't let that dampen the way we were playing towards the end of the first half."

The win means United have gained 28 points from losing positions in the Premier League this season.

In the competition's history, only Newcastle United in 2001-02 (34) and United themselves in 2012-13 (29) have earned more points from such positions.

While McTominay was pleased with the Red Devils' ability to bounce back, he knows they need to start games on the front foot more regularly.

"We have to start getting better in the first 30 minutes," he said.

"For us, our standards were not good enough and after that we played much much better, had more control and dominated the whole second half. A brilliant win and nothing but positives in the second half."

"Game's gone."

In the English-speaking football world, there are few better means to share your deepest frustrations than those two-and-a-bit words. Defending, diving, transfer fees, haircuts – there is not a pet peeve in the modern game that can escape that withering proclamation, even if nobody knows how far away 'gone' really is.

Still, nothing triggers the 'game's gone' gag reflex quite like VAR. That may prove to be the system's defining contribution: the rallying point for fans and professionals determined to bring football 'back' from this sanitised circus, where the clowns clean up the stalls mid-show while the ringmaster reminds the kids to keep fun to a minimum.

By half-time of Sunday's Premier League game between Tottenham and Manchester United, "game's gone" was cried, broadcast and tweeted with the gusto and impact you might expect. It wasn't really necessary, of course. We know the game is 'gone'. VAR has been pushing it 'gone' for months. It's a long, long way 'gone'. In fact, since it's practically a sitcom anyway: the game is so far gone that you can't even see the game. The game is a dot to you!

Edinson Cavani presumably felt like that. The Manchester United striker, already weighing up whether another season in England is worthwhile, saw his first league goal since February 6 disallowed for a foul by Scott McTominay on Son Heung-min in the build-up. Son tried and failed to grab McTominay's shirt, and the United midfielder caught him in the face with a flailing finger. Several replays in Stockley Park and on the sideline at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium convinced referee Chris Kavanagh that the contact was severe enough to merit disallowing the goal, but not to show McTominay what would have been a second yellow card. Five minutes later, Son made it 1-0 to the home side.

Predictable incandescence followed. "I'm amazed, really. If this is a foul, we should all go home. It's really bizarre," said former United captain Roy Keane on Sky Sports. Ex-Manchester City defender Micah Richards said football was beyond recognition, adding: "It's embarrassing. This is not football anymore. I know we have a laugh and joke, but it's spoiling our game."

Perhaps Jose Mourinho said it best: "I don't understand anything anymore." As for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, ever the populist: "The game is absolutely gone."

Rio Ferdinand added his fury to the frothing vitriol of social media. "Scrap VAR... an absolute shambles! The fella at Burnley volleyed Longstaff in the face earlier and wasn't a foul... now this! My tv is moments away from being on the patio in 100 pieces," the former United centre-back tweeted.

Ferdinand was comparing the Son incident to one in Newcastle United's earlier win at Burnley, when James Tarkowski was not penalised by VAR for kicking Sean Longstaff in the face while trying to clear from his own box. The message seemed to be that McTominay's errant pinkie was the more egregious, "unnatural" movement. The half-and-half screenshot memes bellowed their disapproval.

The point of retelling this story, at the end of a gripping game where United once more fought back to win away from home, is that that is what VAR is: the story. Everything else in football matches is a subplot. Spectators, who are still confined to watching at home, tune in expecting not the first goal, but the first visit to the pitchside monitor. 'The game' is played out on TV screens, in houses and stadia alike.

So what that Cavani recovered to force Fred's equaliser and then put United ahead? Who cares that Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba, lightning rods for Mourinho jibes in his United days, were standout performers? What does it matter that Spurs are now six points behind the top four and United are getting closer to Manchester City? The game's all the way over there!

Manchester United have been let down by "sloppy results" this season but are constantly improving under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, according to midfielder Scott McTominay.

Solskjaer's side were eliminated from the FA Cup by Leicester City in the last match before the two-week international break – their first domestic away loss in 30 matches.

United were also knocked out of the EFL Cup by Manchester City at the semi-final stage and exited the Champions League in the group phase earlier in the campaign.

However, the Red Devils have advanced past Real Sociedad and Milan to reach the last eight of the Europa League, where Granada await, while they sit second in the Premier League.

United may be 14 points adrift of leaders Manchester City, albeit with a game in hand, but McTominay believes they are heading in the right direction.

"We've got a good group of players with top, top quality," he told ESPN.

"People are quite quick to forget how well we've done at times. It's the sloppy results that have let us down. This team is evolving. It's not a time to panic."

McTominay has appeared 39 times for United in all competitions this season, which is the most times he has featured for his boyhood club since making his debut in 2016-17.

He ranks particularly highly among United midfielders in the Premier League this term for duels won, his average of 6.54 per 90 minutes behind only Paul Pogba (8.08).

The Scotland international's game has also improved in other areas since last season.

McTominay's average of 46.54 successful passes per game in the top flight is an increase on 41.59 from last season, while his passing accuracy has gone from 80.91 per cent in 2019-20 to 87.58 this term.

Meanwhile, his tally of four goals puts him behind only Bruno Fernandes (16) in regards to United's highest-scoring midfielders.
 
"'I'm not perfect every game and I know that," McTominay said as he looked ahead to the future. "I've got a lot to improve on but there's also things I do well so I'm just trying to improve and kickstart my game to another level. 

"I just want to do my best. It's about consistency and playing well over the course of a season."

United return to action on Sunday with a Premier League meeting with Brighton and Hove Albion at Old Trafford, where they will be aiming to make it six wins in a row against the Seagulls in all competitions, netting exactly three times in the last four.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer applauded Fred for building a career for himself at Manchester United after a rocky start, with the midfielder preparing to make his 100th appearance for the club.

Fred joined United in 2018 for a reported £52million from Shakhtar Donetsk, the deal seen as a significant coup for the Red Devils after he had been heavily linked with bitter rivals Manchester City. 

Pep Guardiola was said to have seen Fred as the ideal long-term replacement for Fernandinho, but United fans were left underwhelmed by what they saw in his first season at Old Trafford, making just 17 Premier League appearances. 

But he showed signs of improvement last season and has become one of Solskjaer's go-to players for the biggest matches, highlighting the manager's trust. 

In 2019-20, Fred improved virtually across the board statistically, averaging more passes (66.4 to 69.5), interceptions (1.4 to 1.6) and touches (85.3 to 91.1) per game than he had in his first season. 

He has dropped off in some of those areas this term, but his increase in tackle attempts (3.2 from 2.5) and interceptions (at 1.9 this season) per game, coupled with the fact he is losing possession less often (11.5 occasions, down from 14.5 per 90 minutes) suggests he has become more comfortable with his defensive role and the speed of the English game. 

His 3.2 tackles attempted per 90 minutes is the seventh-most of all Premier League players to have featured at least 10 times this term, and Solskjaer has no doubt where the praise should lie. 

"He's really done well. I've enjoyed working with him these past couple of seasons," Solskjaer told reporters ahead of Sunday's trip to West Brom. 

"When I came in, he was a boy who was struggling a little bit. I got numerous questions about Fred in press conferences early on. As I said then, players coming into a new country, it takes time to settle - and it took some time for Fred to settle. 

"He has settled now, he's grown in confidence. There's less time in the Premier League than what he was used to. He's quickened up his game, he's not getting caught on the ball.

"I'm not going to take any credit for that, of course. It's the coaches - I think Michael Carrick and Kieran [McKenna], they've been brilliant with him, but it's Fred himself who has had the hunger and humility to learn and want to improve, stick at it and keep working. 

"There are not a lot of people who can say they've played 100 games for Manchester United. Hopefully there will be many more [games] to come - and hopefully he will score from outside the box soon, but I'm not sure it’s going to be with his right [foot]! I've tried to tell him." 

With Solskjaer confirming Paul Pogba remains sidelined with a thigh injury, Fred looks likely to play again this weekend and his most-likely partner behind Bruno Fernandes will be another United midfielder who has attracted praise this season. 

Scott McTominay scored the extra-time winner as United beat West Ham 1-0 on Tuesday to book their place in the FA Cup quarter-finals, taking the Scotland international's tally for the season to seven goals. 

Only Bruno Fernandes (18) and Marcus Rashford (16) have more than McTominay across all competitions in 2020-21, with Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani also on seven each, and Solskjaer is urging the midfielder to reach double figures. 

"Of course, to add goals from midfield is vital," Solskjaer continued. "Last season our three forwards were brilliant and really efficient and scored goals - 60 odd - and Bruno came in and scored goals. 

"We need more goals from midfield and Scott does have that ability to go box-to-box. He's a threat inside the box and he used to be a striker. 

"I think for us to move up the league and be successful in the cups, we need our forwards to keep on firing - getting more goals - and I wouldn't mind some midfielders adding a few.

"If Scott can get into double figures then that would be a very good season for a so-called defensive midfielder."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes the pain of the late collapse against Everton inspired Manchester United to edge past West Ham in the FA Cup fifth round.

Scott McTominay's goal, seven minutes into extra-time, earned United a 1-0 win over the Hammers in a match the Red Devils dominated, leading the shot count 17-3.

Three days earlier, Solskjaer's side let a 2-0 lead slip and then conceded a stoppage-time equaliser in a 3-3 draw against Everton that dented their Premier League title bid.

Following some soul-searching after dropping the precious points at Old Trafford, Solskjaer believes United responded in the best way possible to advance to the FA Cup quarter-finals.

"We needed to have a good result and a good feeling today because we were low after the Everton game. It's hard to take but they were really focused and did the job," Solskjaer said.

"Of course you want to win every game. We want to challenge and we want to go to the final. That's what we're here at Manchester United for.

"Sometimes you're lucky with draws in the cup – we haven't been that lucky – but obviously we move another step closer to the final."

Manchester United eventually saw off West Ham 1-0 after extra-time to reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, substitute Scott McTominay getting the winner at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took the opportunity to give a few United fringe players opportunities to impress but ultimately had to turn to his regulars on the bench, with McTominay the one to make the difference.

United were frustrated in the first half as they struggled to make the most of their dominance over a West Ham side who offered very little in attack, with Victor Lindelof going closest for the hosts when denied by the upright.

Aside from United managing fewer shots, the pattern of the match hardly deviated after the break and it was no surprise to see it remain goalless at the end of the regulation 90 minutes.

But the hosts' superiority told in the end with West Ham unable to cancel out McTominay's 97th-minute strike.

It quickly became apparent that West Ham's plan was to pack their defence with as many players as possible and it was nearly undone just 11 minutes in, but Anthony Martial was denied by a crucial Angelo Ogbonna intervention that resulted in the Italian sustaining an injury.

But United's best chance fell to Lindelof in the 27th minute, his header from an Alex Telles corner taking a slight deflection before Lukasz Fabianski tipped it on to the post.

West Ham lost Ogbonna's replacement Issa Diop – who had clashed heads with Martial – at half-time as the recently introduced concussion substitution was used for the first time in English football, and they soon saw Andriy Yarmolenko forced off as well, former Manchester United trainee Ademipo Odubeko replacing him.

United wasted another chance a minute before Yarmolenko's exit, as Fabianski rushed out to thwart Marcus Rashford after Mason Greenwood's low cross was deflected through.

Extra-time was inevitable despite the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Edinson Cavani coming on, but a penalty shootout was not necessary, with McTominay running on to Rashford's smart lay-off and rifling a low volley into the bottom-right corner.

Manchester United's forwards have their "mojo" back after leading Tuesday's remarkable 9-0 demolition of nine-man Southampton at Old Trafford.

It was only the third instance of a team winning a Premier League match by nine goals and the first time United have won by that margin since March 1995, when they beat Ipswich Town by the same score.

While Andy Cole was the five-goal inspiration in that 1995 win, this time United shared the goals around – seven players netted on Tuesday, making it only the second occasion so many different individuals have netted for the same team in a single Premier League match.

Among them were Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani, providing the perfect response to Solskjaer's pre-match comments maligning the loss of his forwards' "mojo".

"Yeah, of course they have," Solskjaer said with a laugh to BT Sport when asked if they had recovered that "mojo".

"You get lots of confidence from a performance like this and the result, scoring goals is always good for forwards and the team."

He added: "We have been waiting for them to show their magic and tonight was a night they could go and enjoy.

"We haven't had too many of those where you can sit down in the second half and enjoy the football, so they enjoyed it. There were some good performances."

Alexandre Jankewitz's red card for a shocking second-minute tackle on Scott McTominay – who was also among the scorers – left Saints with an uphill battle, and Jan Bednarek followed him down the tunnel in the second half in rather more controversial circumstances.

But the focus will be on United's scoring prowess in the contest, as they put Saints to the sword.

Rashford's goal saw him move on to 83 for the club, overtaking Eric Cantona, and Solskjaer took the moment to praise the England international as he has occasionally had to contend with critics urging him to concentrate on his football amid his charitable efforts during the coronavirus pandemic.

"That's not bad," Solskjaer said of Rashford surpassing Cantona. "Eric was a fantastic player to play with and Marcus has a great career ahead of him.

"What he's done this season, this year, it just shows he can still focus on his football as well."

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