A draw with Leicester City on the final day of the Premier League season on Sunday would secure Champions League qualification for Manchester United. That would be a good achievement in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first full season in charge, even though a club of United’s stature will not be content with top-four finishes forever.
There were few positives to take from United’s final game of last season. A 2-0 home defeat by relegated Cardiff City made it five games without a win for Solskjaer’s side, a poor run which led to a sixth-place finish. It was a result that showed how far United still had to go despite their initial upturn when Solskjaer replaced Jose Mourinho as manager in December.
In hindsight, though, there was one positive to emerge from that loss to Cardiff: a first Premier League start for Mason Greenwood. The forward showed flashes of his quality in that match without getting on the scoresheet, but he has more than made up for that this season. With one game still remaining, Greenwood has already scored 17 goals in all competitions in 2019/20, a tremendous record given this is his first full campaign as a professional.
Despite his undoubted promise, Greenwood had to remain patient for game time in the first half of the season. Daniel James made a strong start following his move from Swansea City last summer, and the established status of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford meant there was no place for Greenwood in the starting XI.
His first start in the Premier League did not arrive until the beginning of December, although he had already made an impact in other competitions at that point, scoring goals and delivering impressive all-round performances in both the League Cup and the Europa League. Yet although he regularly appeared off the bench in the top flight, Greenwood only managed four starts before the division was put on hold in the middle of March.
Since the restart, though, Greenwood has come into his own. James has struggled for form for much of 2020, and the academy graduate has duly replaced him on the right-hand side of a front four which features Rashford on the left, Bruno Fernandes as a No.10 and Martial up front.
Greenwood’s goal in Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with West Ham United – whose manager David Moyes was returning to Old Trafford for only the second time since his sacking as United boss in 2014 – was his 10th in the Premier League this term. Given that most of his appearances have come as a substitute, that gives the 18-year-old an impressive record of a goal every 123.3 minutes. Only three players in Premier League history have found the back of the net more often at Greenwood’s age.
The most impressive thing about the youngster is the maturity with which he plays. Greenwood’s decision-making is better than most of his peers’ and his two-footedness is a major asset when it comes to passing, dribbling and, above all, finishing. It makes him extremely hard to defend against, since full-backs and centre-halves do not know which direction he is going to go in, and goalkeepers find it hard to work out where he will direct his shot.
Greenwood also has lightning speed and makes intelligent movements without the ball. He is a danger when darting in behind an opposition’s backline but is sufficiently technically gifted to drop deep and receive the ball to feet. It is remarkable that the forward’s game is so polished at the tender age of 18.
Many believe his future lies at centre-forward. That is a reasonable prediction given Greenwood’s pace and finishing ability, but for now his career would be best served by playing out wide and developing other aspects of his game.
United’s fluid frontline, which encourages the interchanging of positions, suits him, and Liverpool’s attack shows that the nominal wide players can be the biggest goalscoring threats in certain systems. Over at Anfield, Roberto Firmino assumes the central role with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane either side of him, but the latter duo routinely outscore the Brazil international. Despite his modest return when it comes to putting the ball in the back of the net, Firmino is an essential part of Liverpool’s attacking structure.
United’s system is not exactly the same as Liverpool’s, but there is plenty to get excited about with Fernandes, Rashford, Greenwood and Martial in tandem, and Paul Pogba pushing forward to join them from midfield. The fact that two members of United’s front four are academy graduates is impressive; not only does the presence of former youth-team players in the senior XI excite supporters, it also saves clubs tens of millions of pounds in the transfer market.
“He’s getting better. You can see clearly that he’s maturing and improving, he’s only 18 still so we will see more from him,” Solskjaer said recently.
“I’ve said it throughout the year that as long as we can get him faced up in and around the box he’ll create chances for us but in this game his hold-up play and his link-up play and general movement was fantastic as well.
“It’s great when he can go inside and outside, both to his left and right. He’s a special talent, a special kid that we are going to look after, try to develop into a top, top player. He’s doing well now but he is still young and has things to learn. He knows that but we have a special talent there we have to nurture.”
United fans are right to be excited about Greenwood’s future. The attacking part of the team has suddenly come together, and upgrades in midfield and defence could see Solskjaer’s side kick on next season.