Watching a teenager make their name is a moving, affirming experience, equal parts empathy and envy: if you’re young you want to be young and good, and if you’re old … you still want to be to be young and good. In a wild world, there’s no feeling like watching talent explode, all wide-eyed, grateful and disbelieving.
Mason Greenwood is none of these things, a child who scores goals like a man. Often young players snatch at chances, lost in the supermarket trying six different finishes at once. But Greenwood handles things differently, blessed with a clear mind and the resting heart rate of a table.
These may seem ridiculous words to write about someone who has accomplished so little. But they are considerably less ridiculous than Greenwood’s ability.
When we encounter new things we naturally assess them relative to old things, and Greenwood’s points of comparison are obvious. Aesthetically he is most similar to Robin van Persie: smooth, lean, precise and controlled – but with a right foot as definitive as his left.
Strategically, though, he more closely resembles Ole Gunnar Solskjær: able to get a shot away – and on target – in almost any circumstance. Against AZ Alkmaar and Everton, Greenwood’s excellent goals bore a hallmark of his boss: shaping for the far post before dragging a finish back towards the near – through the legs of a defender used as a screen. Neither strike was particularly powerful and both passed close to the keeper, but timing and disguise ensured that neither effort was remotely saveable.
And elementally Greenwood is most reminiscent of Paul Scholes: though he does a very different job, his style is underpinned by the principle of only ever attempting what is feasible. If a situation demands something simple, something simple is performed; if a situation demands something flash, something flash is performed.
This illustrates equanimity as well as ability. “He doesn’t change his demeanour if he scores or if he misses,” said Solskjær after Greenwood’s superb winner against Astana in September. “He’s a delightful young boy to work with.”
When Real Madrid won the Champions League final in 2000, Roy Keane noticed that Raúl reacted with none of the traditional tears and histrionics. “I deserve this,” was how Keane summarised his attitude, and Greenwood is similarly entitled. Unlike for instance Marcus Rashford, he seems not surprised by his emergence but that he has been expecting it, wondering what’s taken so long.
Though it made sense that Greenwood began the season as a substitute, it was odd that, with Anthony Martial injured and United struggling to score, he was picked to start only two cup games. But he still managed beautifully taken goals against Astana and Rochdale, and in 893 minutes now has seven – plus two assists.
The xG model calculates that there was only an 11.41% chance of him taking as many opportunities as he has done, and no number can describe the expertise of those finishes. Nor does xG account for which foot the ball dropped to or the state of the game. He is two-footed enough to vary his dead balls and all of his goals have come with United under pressure, either level or trailing.
The United youth coach Jimmy Murphy used to describe the players he nurtured as apples in his orchard, presenting them to Matt Busby only when they were ready. But because there were no substitutes in those days, eventually the manager had to take a risk. Even players such as Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham were picked to start on account of their talent rather than the compelling case they made off the bench. Greenwood, on the other hand, has earned a spot by the quality of his performances, and the more there are, the faster he will improve.
Of United’s attackers, Daniel James is the easiest for Solskjær to drop. But though Greenwood can contribute from the right wing, he’s better between the width of the goalposts: already United’s best finisher, his hold-up play was lively when picked at centre-forward against Spurs. It is true that Martial, who usually features there, has a high top level but what distinguishes the best players is a high bottom level, which the Frenchman lacks. Against United, teams tend to sit back – Newcastle seem sure to on Boxing Day – and Greenwood is far more likely than Martial to press, conjure room for shots and attack crosses at the near post; to mitigate the abominable midfield behind him.
United are a bad state, and they can’t expect an 18-year-old to redeem a situation that is 15 years, a billion pounds and much incompetence in the making – but if Greenwood plays, people will feel feelings. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.
The Guardian Sport