Call it bad luck with injuries. Blame it on a blunder in recruitment. Applaud, maybe, the club’s bold new approach to give youth more of a chance.
Whatever the reasons, Manchester United – the grandest team in English soccer – finds itself in the alarming position of relying on a 17-year-old academy product for goals at a busy stage of the season.
Mason Greenwood is so far delivering, and proving to be one of the few bright sparks amid some dark times for United.
Having offloaded Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez to Inter Milan in Europe’s summer transfer window and not replaced them, United’s already-stretched attacking resources have been further depleted by injuries to Anthony Martial and, at the weekend, Marcus Rashford.
Greenwood is the only fit striker remaining in the squad – quite a burden for a teenager and a major problem for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, given his team is competing on three fronts (Premier League, Europa League and League Cup) at the moment, necessitating a game every three or four days.
Like he has in every stage of his young career, Greenwood has risen to the occasion by scoring the winner in the Europa League home match against Astana last week – and thereby becoming United’s youngest ever European scorer – and then in the English League Cup third-round match against Rochdale on Wednesday.
A much bigger test for Greenwood comes on Monday, when Arsenal visits Old Trafford. It will be the most high-profile match of his life, should he start again. Not that Solskjaer really has any other choice.
“He has two great feet … so he must be a nightmare for defenders having him one-on-one in the box,” Solskjaer said after the game against Rochdale, which United ended up winning via a penalty shootout following a 1-1 draw.
“He can go both ways, which is for me fantastic, and you can just see he has got quality.”
It wasn’t the first time Solskjaer – a former striker himself – has purred about Greenwood, previously saying he was “one of the best finishers I’ve seen.”
“If you just get Mason in the box, you know something is going to happen,” he said last week of a player who has been at United since the age of 6.
Greenwood has also been likened to Robin van Persie – the former United, Arsenal and Netherlands striker – by United great Ryan Giggs, who is currently the Wales coach.
That’s because Greenwood has slick movement and is strong with both feet, making him unpredictable. He is left-footed, but took his penalty in the shootout against Rochdale with his right.
“Mason Greenwood’s dynamite, he scores them with his left and he scores them with his right,” United fans were heard singing after a goal with his right foot against Astana.
The goals in open play against Astana and Rochdale were similar, in that he only needed a bit of space to shift the ball to one side and drive home low and precise finishes. He is slight and deceptively quick.
Greenwood, who recently was called up to England’s Under-21 squad, gets a big billing because he has always scored goals at youth level: 17 in 21 games for United’s Under-18 side in the 2017-18 season as a 15 year old, 15 in 13 games in the Under-18 Premier League last season, and five in five in the UEFA Youth League.
Called up by then-manager Jose Mourinho for United’s preseason tour in 2018, he signed his first pro contract in October, made his senior debut in the second leg of the Champions League last-16 match against Paris Saint-Germain away, and got his first start in the final Premier League game of last season against Cardiff.
Solskjaer believed in Greenwood so much that he was happy to make him United’s third-choice striker this season when Lukaku and Sanchez were not replaced, potentially not by design.
“For me, it was the right decision for the club and for him,” Solskjaer said. “He’s going to be important this season … He is a delightful young boy to work with.”?
These are tough times, though, to come in and lead the line for United, which is nowhere near the force of old and might even struggle to finish in the Premier League’s top six this season.
United hasn’t scored more than one goal in a game since the opening-weekend 4-0 win over Chelsea, and a meek 2-0 loss at West Ham saw the team slip to eighth place.
The emergence of Greenwood is one of the few things for United fans to celebrate this season. They might be cheering him on for years to come.
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