Some like Freddy Adu, Bojan Krkic and Francis Jeffers do not live up to the promise they show as teenagers. Others like Adnan Januzaj and Martin Odegaard try rebuilding careers after an early mismatch in potential and performance. The jury was out on whether Marcus Rashford would deliver as an 18-year-old when he got his first start, against FC Midtjylland. And there are players like Kaka who, though a debutant at Sao Paulo at 18, was said to be a late bloomer by the club’s academy staff.
Mason Greenwood is none of the above. It is almost prescient that Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ topped the charts in 2001, the year he was born. “I’ve watched him before he got to the first team—it was never a matter of if he was going to play with us, it was just when,” Rashford has said.
Having joined the Manchester United academy when he was six, Greenwood bagged the Jimmy Murphy award in 2018-19. It is given to United’s best young player and is named after the man who was important in grooming Busby Babes and in the team’s rebuilding after the Munich air crash. In the time of no substitutes, Murphy, who died in 1989, had to know when the young ones could be delivered to Matt Busby.
Having been involved in 1.3 goals per game last term, Greenwood was ready even before he got his first senior start—against Astana in the Europa League. Before that September game, United coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had rated Greenwood, still not 18, as one of the best finishers he had seen.
Between then and now, Greenwood has notched up some staggering numbers. Such as 17 goals and five assists in 2411 minutes in 47 games. That is being involved in a goal every 109.5 minutes. That is also equalling the maximum goals by a United teenager in a season, matching Brian Kidd, George Best and Wayne Rooney. United’s young front three of Rashford, Anthony Martial and Greenwood have scored a combined 61 goals in all competitions. Premier League winners Liverpool’s frontline of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino has 56.
United being alive in the Europa League means Greenwood could get four more games before this stop-start season ends. Greenwood has averaged a goal every 92 minutes in Europa League this term. When football stopped for over three months due to Covid-19, Greenwood worked on his upper body, gaining 3kg of muscle mass. “Mason is looking more and more like a man,” said Solskjaer. Since Premier League’s resumption, Greenwood has five goals from eight games. He is the first teenager to score 10 league goals in the Premiership since Rooney in 2004-05.
Comparing Greenwood’s record in 50 games with football’s famous names the website www.90min.com found that Rooney had scored nine, Lionel Messi 13 and Cristiano Ronaldo 6. The ones ahead of Greenwood in that list were Kylian Mbappe (23), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (20) and Robert Lewandowski (28) though the last two were in their 20s going into their 50th games. Sports website The Athletic calculated that before Project Restart, Greenwood had the best ratio for league goals scored to expected goals (xG) which is the probability of a goal being scored from a particular area and a particular play.
Greenwood had scored eight goals from 31 shots and had an xG of 2.4. His ratio of 3.3—actual goals divided by xG—was twice more than Kevin de Bruyne for players who had scored eight or more. It meant Greenwood was twice as likely to score as the next best player. Of course, this being his breakout season meant Greenwood’s sample size was way smaller than, say, Jamie Vardy’s.
His ability to drop deep and help the defence and the conviction in his finishing makes Greenwood more of a seasoned professional than a teenager who had one start in the league and in Europe till December. “He doesn’t change his demeanour if he scores or misses,” Solskjaer has said.
Greenwood’s goal against Aston Villa came after he surged down the right, cut in and played a square pass with his left foot. It took out Douglas Luiz so when Anthony Martial played it back to Greenwood, it gave him space to rifle home a right-footer.
Used mostly as a right-side forward, Greenwood is comfortable shooting with both feet. In the 5-2 win against Bournemouth, Greenwood’s first came from a powerful left-footer and the second was a cannonball from the right. His first goal for United in the league though wasn’t banged in. On a November night in Bramall Lane when United and Sheffield United shared six goals, Greenwood slid out from a defensive sandwich to stab home. Like Solskjaer, Greenwood can also score through a defender’s legs, which makes it difficult for the goalkeeper to sight the ball, as Norwich United and Everton’s Yerry Mina found out. The goal against Everton came when United were trailing as they were when Greenwood struck against Bournemouth and West Ham.
“He’s bailed us out a few times and he’s done it again. He trusts himself that his talent, his qualities, attributes, they actually work at the highest level…when he is in and around the box, you expect him to hit the target,” said Solskjaer.
All this explains why a recent Guardian podcast began by asking whether Greenwood would win the Euro 2021 for England. “Won’t be long before Greenwood gets the green-light for @England,” tweeted former England captain Gary Lineker. “(He’s) a potential superstar… The way he gets his shot away early, he doesn’t give the keeper a chance to set himself,” said Alan Shearer who has a record 260 Premiership goals.
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