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16th Dec 2019

Mason Greenwood strengthens claim for starting berth as Man Utd fall short again

Simon Lloyd

Greenwood is currently United’s most prolific scorer

On a day where Manchester United marked 4,000 successive senior games with at least one academy graduate in their match day squad, it was fitting that Mason Greenwood should provide their brightest moment.

On as a second half substitute, Greenwood had dropped into a pocket of space to receive a Daniel James pass on the edge of the Everton area. With one touch to control and another to set himself, he fired low, through the legs of Yerry Mina and into the bottom corner of Jordan Pickford’s goal.

Greenwood’s shot had brought United level after Victor Lindelöf’s own-goal in the first half. Disappointingly, for the majority of those at Old Trafford to witness it, United were unable to follow it with a second. Settling for a 1-1 draw after victories over Tottenham and Manchester City was undoubtedly a setback for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, but Greenwood’s contribution was, perhaps, a reminder that better times lie ahead from this young and still painfully inconsistent United team.

The pattern to this game was a familiar one for many in attendance. Just as they have done on many occasions this season, United created and squandered a series of presentable chances before falling behind, then struggled to penetrate a team content to deploy a low block. Anthony Martial, so effective in that scintillating opening half hour at the Etihad a week ago, carried hardly any threat all afternoon; Marcus Rashford was also relatively quiet, despite his recent flurry of goals.

That it was Greenwood who found a way to unpick the lock will only add weight to suggestions that it is a matter of time before Solskjaer calls on him to start these games instead of settling for the role of impact sub. The numbers back it up, too: with seven goals to his name this season, only Rashford (13) has bettered his tally for United. In terms of goals per minutes played, Greenwood – who has averaged a goal every 110 minutes – is currently the club’s most prolific goal scorer. 

To those who watched him blaze his way through United’s youth sides, scoring with impressive regularity at every level, Greenwood’s impact in the first team since his debut towards the end of last season has come as no surprise. A year ago, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was brought in to try and clear the smouldering rubble left by Jose Mourinho’s disastrous final weeks, Greenwood – just turned 17 – was already pushing hard. Eligible to play for United’s Under 16 side in 2017/18, he finished that season as top scorer for their Under 18s, scoring 17 times in 17 appearances. That May, he was named Player of the Tournament as United won the ICGT trophy in the Netherlands and scored the winner in the final against Real Madrid.

United have long been taking preventative measures to screen their brightest prospects from any excessive media attention, but when Mourinho named Greenwood in his senior squad for the 2018 summer tour of the United States, it was growing impossible to quell the rising hype surrounding the teenager. Only weeks after sitting his GCSEs, his only appearances on the tour came from the bench; that he was even on the plane in the first place spoke volumes about how highly he was regarded.

Solskjaer, it has to be said, has managed the youngster well since taking charge. His decision to allow Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez to depart for Inter Milan in the summer is believed to have been partly motivated by a desire to integrate Greenwood into the first team picture. To date, most of his opportunities have come in the Europa League. In that competition, he has scored four of his seven goals and showcased the same pace and trickery that have helped him soar through the youth ranks to United’s first-team in the last two years.

Though reinforcements may come in January, it seems certain Greenwood may have a more prominent role to play in the Premier League. Remarkably, United have accumulated 13 points against the five teams that currently sit above them in the table; against the 14 teams below them, they have managed to pick up just 12. They are, as their performance against City demonstrated, a wonderful counter attacking side, but one that lacks the ingenuity and spark needed when up against teams content to sit deep and frustrate. Should they continue to falter against lesser opponents, Solskjaer has little option but turn to the young man that may yet prove to be the most exciting talent to emerge from United’s famed youth setup in a generation from the start.