Mason Greenwood is in the England U21 squad but could he soon be a regular in the Manchester United first-team too? That’s the view of team-mates and former coaches who speak of a rare talent who is capable of making it to the top, writes Adam Bate.
Marcus Rashford calls him frightening. Luke Shaw calls him unbelievable. Senior players praise his maturity and his attitude. Supporters liken him to Robin van Persie. As the highly-paid flops depart Manchester United, there is a space that’s opened up for a new favourite to emerge and teenager Mason Greenwood fits the profile perfectly.
The 231st academy graduate to represent United is a bit special. There were glimpses of that even in his brief cameo at Southampton. Greenwood forced a good save from Angus Gunn after showcasing some of his stepovers and might have won a penalty had the referee spotted the inadvertent kick that he received from Stuart Armstrong late on.
A starting spot is unlikely to be far away for a player who scored more than a goal a game for United’s U18 and U23 sides. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has already trusted Greenwood off the bench that memorable March night in Paris and awarded him his full Premier League debut on the final day of last season when he described him as the team’s “best player by a mile”.
But it was in pre-season that Greenwood really convinced Solskjaer that he was ready. A goal against Leeds always helps but there was much more than that. There was the time he twisted and turned the Perth Glory defence inside out. There was his goal against Inter, while his drag-back in that game made a fool out of the experienced Milan Skriniar.
There is a certain irony that Greenwood impressed against the Italian team that has taken on Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku. They are United’s past now. Still just 17, Greenwood is the future. Maybe even the present. That’s how Solskjaer sees it. “Mason’s pathway would have been a lot more difficult if we had another forward here,” he said recently.
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It seems certain that Greenwood will get his chance. The big question now is just how good he can become when he gets it. What sets him apart from the rest and where exactly will he fit into this United team? Neil Dewsnip was Greenwood’s coach with the England U18 squad last year and he sees him as someone with the mentality and talent to succeed.
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“In the England U18 team he played as an out-and-out centre-forward right down the middle and did quite well in that role but we also used him in wide areas as well, particularly on the right side of the field where he can cut in on his left foot and belt it quite nicely.
“He has definitely got an eye for goal, so I would agree with his manager that he can score a variety of goals. He is quite fast, direct and can get in behind defences. He’s also clever enough to combine with his team-mates. So he’s got an interesting package developing.”
Aidy Boothroyd on Greenwood and his new room-mate Phil Foden But will he be able to put that package together at a club like United when there is no club like United? Will a player who had to go back to school the day after playing his part in that Champions League victory over Paris Saint-Germain cope with the pressure of needing to deliver at arguably the biggest club in the world? Will he be able to handle all that?
“I think he could,” adds Dewsnip. “Front players tend to bring that with them. They love to score goals. They are excited by that. I don’t think he will be fazed by Old Trafford. I think he will relish it. The crowd has already started to develop an awareness about him. It remains to be seen whether he can deliver but I don’t think he will be fazed by it.”
Find out more about Sky Sports Total Football Offer: Just £18 extra a month! Speaking to one of his senior colleagues, it seems Greenwood has no reason to be fazed. Inside the academy building at United’s Carrington training ground, where pictures of other graduates adorn the walls, Luke Shaw smiles when the name of Greenwood is mentioned. The left-back has faced him in training. He knows what is awaiting Premier League defences.
“He is a really amazing player, an unbelievable talent and it is mad to think that he is only 17,” Shaw tells Sky Sports. “There is so much more to come from him but there is so much he is doing right now. He is impressing every time he plays and every time he trains with us he wants to learn. Ole has massive faith in him and so do the rest of us.”
Both Rashford and Lingard have called Greenwood laid back and there is a calmness to his game. He is seen by both as a natural finisher – the remarkable thing being that he can do it with both feet, even taking penalties with his supposedly weaker right foot. He played in a deeper role in his younger days but was moved forward because of his finishing ability.
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Much more than a poacher, he is a dribbler too with good pace – his sister is on an athletic scholarship at Manchester Metropolitan University. Greenwood has similar natural gifts, blessed with strength as well as speed and skill. Even as a teenager, he has the upper body strength to hold off his marker and switch the play by hitting sweeping cross-field passes.
Manchester United like to keep a lid on these things as best they can, restricting his media activities given his tender age. But the secret is out. The United supporters know it and his United team-mates know it too. “We know what he will be bringing to this team very soon,” adds Shaw. “He just needs to keep his head down and work hard and his talent will flourish.
“He can be one of the best in the world.”
It’s high praise and some solace for United even as their biggest rivals continue to outperform them. The urge over the past six seasons has been to spend their way back to the top but there is a recognition now that, even for a club of their resources, this is impossible. There needs to be a plan. They need to build. And it will take time.
Players like Daniel James and Greenwood are offering United hope Just as they always have, they will need to rely on an academy graduate or two. Scott McTominay continues to develop, embodying the spirit of hard work that every supporter wants to see from their players. But Greenwood has the ability to offer that and more. He is a player with that bit of fantasy to his game. A player who can make United believe again.
“This team has got energy, it’s got youth,” said Gary Neville on a recent appearance on Monday Night Football. “I like it. It’s not slow, it’s not methodical, it’s not boring. if it develops, with some good additions, they have got a good chance of doing something in two years. It is not going to happen overnight but I am happier with what United are.”
When Greenwood gets a run in the team, the Manchester United supporters will be even happier. They might not have to wait too long.