It’s not uncommon for teams to play various young players on preseason tour, only to loan them out or keep them in the academy when the season starts. While this may upset fans, it’s a sensible phenomenon, for the jump to senior football is an incredibly difficult one to make, particularly for teams attempting to challenge for the biggest prizes in Europe.
However, there are some players who can make that jump, who reach a stage in their development in which first-team exposure for their respective teams is a logical step in their natural progression as a footballer. One such player is 17-year-old English forward Mason Greenwood, who has emerged as Manchester United’s premier young talent.
While the hype around any young player is often grossly exaggerated, Greenwood could genuinely play a role in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad next season due to his well-rounded ability.
Last season, Greenwood was sensational, with 26 goals and 8 assists in 30 appearances, the majority of which were for the under-18s. He also made three appearances in the Premier League, playing 115 minutes, and played in the EPL 2, the UEFA Youth League, the FA Youth Cup, and came on in United’s memorable 3-1 victory over PSG in the UEFA Champions League.
Greenwood was a dominant striker at youth level, as shown by his scoring record. While these performances were undoubtedly impressive, his appearances against Cardiff City in the last game of the season received the most attention. He took 7 shots, 4 of which were on target, while also achieving three successful dribbles and a pass completion rate of 84%.
Despite the fact that United lost the game 2-0, Solskjaer said after the match that Greenwood was United’s “best player by a mile and that says a lot about the kid,” adding that “He came into a team which lacked confidence. But I’m not surprised by his performance, we know he is capable of that.”
While it was a small sample size, it provided a tiny snapshot of the type of player Greenwood is and why he has found so much success at youth level.
Greenwood possesses a very well-rounded attacking game. He doesn’t just score with both feet, but takes free kicks and penalties with both feet. Aside from displaying his technical quality, it shows that he is a genuinely two-footed striker. This obviously makes him harder to defend, and allows Greenwood to be a more potent goal scoring threat.
Additionally, his time spent as a midfielder when he was younger has translated to Greenwood having excellent passing ability. He is not an exceptional creator, but it allows him to retain possession and links attacks, both integral components to a striker’s play.
Greenwood is pacy, capable of running in behind a defense and testing opposition defenders with impressive speed. He is equally capable while running with the ball at his feet, as he is a competent dribbler and possesses good balance. Greenwood may occasionally dazzle with eye-catching tricks, such as his roulette against Milan Skriniar in a preseason game showed, but the more useful aspect to his dribbling is that he is capable of shielding the ball at high speed with intelligent use of his body and good balance. These technical attributes fit well with how most big teams want to play in the modern game.
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With the evolution of modern tactics, the role of the number nine has shifted. Teams want to play a different kind of football, one that transitions from patient possession to direct, exhilarating attacks, and they require forwards with the requisite skills to facilitate that style.
They can’t just be hulking target men who linger in the box to get on the end of chances or pacy poachers who can get behind a defense. They need to be capable of switching positions with other attackers, finding teammates in tight spaces, running with the ball at their feet, dropping off into space ahead of the opposition defense, creating space for other teammates through movement, and working tirelessly off the ball to press.
It goes without saying that at an elite level, they have to be phenomenal goal scorers. The best Premier League strikers, the likes of Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero, Roberto Firmino, etc. are all capable of performing various different tasks within their team’s style while also being clinical finishers. There’s not enough evidence to suggest Greenwood will become one of the best Premier League strikers, but his playing style fits the profile of what the modern number nine needs to do in order to reach that level.
While there are several admirable traits in Greenwood’s game, the most impressive element to his play is his innate football intelligence. He is masterful at finding and exploiting space, and is always aware of his position on the pitch in relation to the opposition and his teammates.
Greenwood is capable of making late runs into the box or shadowing runs of more advanced attackers, showcasing that he is constantly aware of the opposition defense and the space that his teammates have created for him. He is also more than capable of making intelligent runs to disrupt opposition defenses and create space for other players to exploit. This movement off the ball and spacial awareness enables him to play multiple positions and could be his most valuable asset when progressing to the Manchester United first team.
His technical and physical attributes can be improved, but an inherent understanding of space and ability to exploit it through movement is something that is difficult to teach, but an incredibly valuable skill to have.
Judging from Solskjaer’s comments, Greenwood will have a role to play in the squad next season, and it will presumably be more than five minutes in a cup game or a few appearances towards the end of the season. In addition to these remarks, fans have reason to be optimistic about Greenwood getting minutes due to United’s weaknesses in terms of squad depth up front.
Marcus Rashford has been trusted with leading the line, Anthony Martial is often used on the left-wing or as a second striker alongside Rashford, Alexis Sanchez has failed to impress in his United career thus far, and Romelu Lukaku looks set to join Inter Milan.
Moreover, United will be spending significant money in other areas of the pitch before they purchase a backup striker. They have already made a significant outlay on Aaron Wan-Bissaka, have reportedly made a hefty bid for Harry Maguire, and are strongly linked to Bruno Fernandes.
Given these reported links and fees, even a club with the financial riches of Manchester United will be wary of spending too much money in a short space of time. Given this, Greenwood could emerge as United’s solution to provide strength and depth in the striking role.
It would be a risk to rely on a player of his tender age too much, and it’s unlikely he would start too many games. But he seems to possess the innate abilities to justify his place in the first-team squad as an option in a rotational setup. The decision to give him minutes would be a calculated risk with some basis rather than an irrational way to pander to fans by giving an academy player game time.
Whether he will become a legend of the club is unknown, but Mason Greenwood can and should play a role in Manchester United’s first-team squad next year.
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