On a night when Ralf Rangnick wanted to hand opportunities to some of those who have been on the fringes of the first team at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s best player was a regular under his predecessor. Mason Greenwood not only scored his side’s only goal of a low-key 1-1 draw with Young Boys in this Champions League dead rubber but also created their most presentable chances.
The goal was a scissor kick, exquisitely and devastatingly executed, making the most of a Luke Shaw cross that was hit ever so slightly too far behind him. Rangnick did not need to start the 20-year-old last night to know that he may be United’s best and most instinctive finisher since Robin van Persie – anyone even vaguely familiar with Greenwood’s career trajectory over the last three years knows that – but it made that moment of improvisation no less spectacular.
Greenwood’s preternatural finishing was one of the main factors behind his rise under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but that rise was one of the more peculiar elements of the Norwegian’s three years in charge. Solskjaer quickly and correctly identified Greenwood as the most exciting prospect to come through United’s academy in several years and promoted him, bringing him on for his senior debut when still needing a goal in the dying moments of his most famous victory, the 3-1 away to Paris Saint-Germain.
He was a fully-fledged member of the first team by the following winter and made 119 appearances over the course of Solskjaer’s reign in total, though the vast majority of those did not come in his natural position. Greenwood was a striker in the academy but a forward playing off the right wing once he established himself in the first team, and despite scoring many of his 35 career goals from that nominally wide position, there has always been a nagging question over if it is a role that suits him.
That goal tally would suggest he has been getting along fine regardless of whether it is his best position or not, yet playing a teenage centre-forward in an unfamiliar position had consequences for United’s build-up play, ball progression and chance creation. Greenwood’s creative numbers – with an average of 0.07 expected assists (xA) per 90 minutes over the past two Premier League seasons – were understandable given his age and the circumstances of him playing out of position, but not exactly substantial contributions.
Solskjaer nevertheless persisted with playing Greenwood wide, even through Anthony Martial’s consistently inconsistent form up front and despite Edinson Cavani’s patchy availability. Why? Solskjaer claimed his reluctance to regularly play Greenwood up top was due to his age but also his relatively light frame. “Sometimes you don’t want to be right up in the mix and in the middle with the big brutal centre-backs next to you,” he would claim.
But with Marcus Rashford filling a similar profile as a wide forward with limited creative output out on United’s left, both he and Greenwood became one of the symbols of an unbalanced United attack that boasted a lot of players who could finish chances but precious few who could fashion them. That imbalance appeared to be addressed by one of United’s signings this past summer, only to be restored by another.
The arrival of Jadon Sancho, on paper, was supposed to take the creative burden off Bruno Fernandes’s shoulders in United’s attack while giving United a true wide forward to play off the right, allowing Greenwood more minutes up front. Instead, the return of Cristiano Ronaldo and a lack of definition around Sancho’s role meant Greenwood remained out wide. The problems of an imbalanced attack persisted and despite a fast start to the season on an individual, Greenwood’s goals began to dry up too, right up until Solskjaer’s departure.
Rangnick, interestingly, shares a lot of Solskjaer’s opinions about Greenwood. He does not see him as solely a centre-forward and certainly not as a centre-forward in the traditional sense. “I think Mason is more of a nine and a half,” he said after the draw with Young Boys, comparing his impressions of Greenwood with his experience of working with Erling Haaland in the Red Bull project. “[Greenwood] can play as a striker, he can also come from the wing, he can play together with another striker.”
And again, like Solskjaer, he has identified Greenwood’s physicality as an area in need of improvement. “We have to develop him there, physically. Technically, all the things he can do with the ball are outstanding. I’m not so worried about his technical level. We need to develop him physically and mentally to become the strongest version of himself. If we manage to do that, he can become a regular player and a valuable player for the future.”
But that last line – on becoming “a regular player” – stands out. Greenwood was a regular under Solskjaer but Rangnick’s words suggest he may have fallen slightly down the pecking order now. While that is not ideal for any player, it may be no bad thing in Greenwood’s case if it means fewer minutes in total but more playing time in the position that he is likely to fill during the remainder of his career.
In Rangnick’s preferred 4-2-2-2 system, there are twice as many chances to play up front with two centre-forwards roles to compete for rather than just one. Typically, his strike partnerships are made up of one target player in the Haaland mould – which Ronaldo is likely to fill – and another with more responsibility for leading the press when out of possession and making runs in behind when in it.
Though he has Rashford for competition and will need to develop his pressing game considerably, this role would be more suited to Greenwood’s skill set than remaining out in one of the two positions out wide. There, Rangnick has Sancho, Fernandes, Jesse Lingard, Donny van de Beek and several others to choose from. It is probably where Paul Pogba fits into this side, too, once he returns from a thigh injury.
Greenwood has hardly done badly while predominantly playing out wide. On the contrary, only George Best and Norman Whiteside reached the milestone of 30 United goals at a younger age, but you wonder how many more goals he might have – and how United’s general attacking play might have improved – with him playing in a more familiar position. With Rangnick in charge, we may begin to find out.