The sight of a young talent bursting onto the scene is nothing new for Manchester United fans, but something feels different about Mason Greenwood’s rise.
Greenwood’s penalty in the FA Cup win at Tranmere was his 11th goal of the season, in a fifth different competition. The teenager is still at the stage of his career where he has been getting game-time for United’s under-21s in the Football League Trophy, even when his goal against Doncaster was sandwiched between Premier League outings at Norwich and Bournemouth.
However, when other forwards his age were able to walk out of a well-stocked academy and into a healthy, flourishing first team, what’s really striking about Greenwood’s progress is that it’s come when the squad he is joining hasn’t been doing nearly as well.
“We’ll just keep continuing to give him more and more until he is a regular, because that will happen,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said of the 18-year-old, who made his debut in the dramatic win at Paris Saint-Germain last season.
While the same might have applied to the likes of Marcus Rashford, Danny Welbeck and Paul Scholes in years past, the admission from United’s manager tells us a great deal, not just about Greenwood himself but about the situation the striker has now found himself in.
United shouldn’t be in the position where they need Greenwood to succeed, but what might sound like a failure of recruitment is turning into a sink-or-swim scenario where he’s almost forced to prove his worth right here and right now.
Mason Greenwood has now scored in Premier League, FA Cup, Carabao Cup, Europa League, Premier League 2, https://t.co/JMNLTHK0Vp Trophy and for England U21s. Basically every competition he’s played this season. And he’s only 18.
— Adam Marshall (@AdamSMarshall) January 26, 2020
Greenwood might have scored better goals than the one on Boxing Day against Newcastle, but few have been more symbolic of his rise.
He is given an unlikely opportunity – both by a Newcastle defensive lapse in the immediate sense, and by United’s lack of attacking depth in a wider one – and by smashing the ball through Martin Dubravka he is demonstrating a refusal to let any obstacle stand in his way.
It’s a reminder of the state of the world in 2007, when Greenwood joined United’s set-up as a six-year-old. Back then, United weren’t just dominant; a refusal to slow down or accept ‘no’ as an answer was part of the club’s psyche.
While things have taken a turn for the worse, sometimes you need someone relatively untainted by recent failures to continue that cycle of self-belief. After all, it’s tougher to consider yourself unstoppable when confronted with so much evidence to the contrary.
Throughout his short time as a top-flight striker, Greenwood has begun to develop an early ‘trademark’ goal, a low drilled left-footed effort which flies to the left of the goalkeeper. Yes, for those keeping track, that means he took the penalty at Prenton Park with his nominally ‘weaker’ foot, just because he can.
It’s not nearly as eye-catching as a Tony Yeboah off-the-bar smash, or an Arjen Robben/Thierry Henry cut inside and curl for the far corner, but it’s all the better for that.
While United’s performances in the 2000s might be best remembered for stand-out goals like Federico Macheda’s curler against Aston Villa or the team goal against Bolton rounded off by Wayne Rooney, much of their success came down to the bland, even boring strikes which you’d forgotten within a couple of weeks.
After the last year of embarrassment, a period where the question “what are you doing” feels permanently on the lips of supporters, there’s something to be said for boring efficiency.
United’s supporters might be desperate to return to a time when they were feared, but the bland resentment phase is just one step along the way. If you want people to hate you, being exciting isn’t a requirement. Indeed, it’s often bad for the brand.
While Manchester United’s season is far from over – they remain in Europe, and are not out of the running for a top-four spot in the Premier League – there’s no harm in taking Greenwood’s progress as a win in its own right, regardless of what follows.
A year ago, the striker was still awaiting his debut, and six months ago he had only played 118 minutes for the first team, so the level of his contribution this season shouldn’t be sniffed at.
It might point to wider problems that United have needed Mason Greenwood so much this season, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take the positives from what he’s done so far.
By Tom Victor