Mason Greenwood: Learning on the Job
Mason Greenwood recently became only the fifth United player to pass the 100-match landmark before his 20th birthday, following in the footsteps of Norman Whiteside, George Best, Ryan Giggs and Duncan Edwards.
Only Whiteside and Best netted more often for United in their teens, outlining Greenwood’s worth in a forward’s base currency. It was as an unstoppable goalscorer that Greenwood made his name on his rise through the Reds’ ranks and into his breakthrough season last term. Deployed from the bench in almost 50 per cent of his senior appearances in 2019/20, the youngster’s designated role and modus operandi were in harmony: get out there and score, kid. Comfortable taking aim with either foot, Mason tore the senior game apart, bewitching and befuddling opponents across Europe with his array of finishing and an unplayable penchant for catching keepers and defenders off-guard with shots mid-step.
But, even for a player cast in that rare model of bipedal, the element of surprise can ease off for any newcomer to a new league, be they imported or homegrown. Thereafter, the very best develop and augment their skillset, which is where Greenwood’s current campaign currently stands. Both the player and his manager may see him as a centre-forward in the long-term, but this season Greenwood has operated more as a supplier on the right flank, and his breathtaking cross for Edinson Cavani’s diving header at Tottenham in April demonstrated a player now armed with the knowledge of exactly how a centre-forward should be supplied.
Whether in football or any other high-profile walk of life, the tale is as old as time: gifted youngster marches unannounced into the spotlight, steals the show, becomes less of an unknown quantity, is subjected to increased scrutiny at the first opportunity. As retorts go, a sublime goal in a huge knockout game against major rivals is hard to beat, which is exactly what Greenwood did in that 3-2 FA Cup win over Liverpool in the FA Cup back in January.
Post-match following his side’s victory over the Merseysiders in that fourth-round tie, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was asked about the established phenomenon of second-season syndrome and its potential presence in the game of a teenager still honing his game. “It’s always a challenge,” said the Norwegian. “Everything is a test. We talk about the second-season syndrome and if you take your eye off the ball for a slight second, the Premier League is unforgiving. It’s always a learning curve and a test.”
The goal against Liverpool ended a 10-game goal drought, but then preceded another 15 games without scoring. But, tellingly, Greenwood has been allowed to learn on the job all season long regardless of his goals return, making 36 starts in 2020/21 in comparison to 26 in the entirety of last term. He has the faith of a manager who recognises that not even the most freakish young prodigies steadily ride an upward trajectory. United’s record appearance-maker Ryan Giggs saw his form dip for much of 1994/95 before he bounced back as a Double winner the following term, while Cristiano Ronaldo endured a torrid second season in England.
Ever since March’s FA Cup defeat at Leicester, the goals have been flowing again for United’s no.11. In the Premier League tie with Burnley at Old Trafford in April, Greenwood’s second-half pair not only prompted an important 3-1 win; it also marked the youngster’s first brace of the season and his fourth and fifth goals in the space of six games, with another added in the rout over Roma. “I’m very happy for him,” smiled Solskjaer. “He’s very creative but plays simple when he has to. He’s mixing up his game. He goes inside and outside, he’s maturing all the time. It’s lovely to see. He’s put the work in on the training ground and reaps the rewards. Last season he was young, now he’s had almost two seasons in the first team. Especially in the last three or four months I’ve seen how mature he is on the training ground and he plays with maturity and understanding.”
Like any youngster in their first workplace, fledgling footballers look to their senior peers for guidance in various facets of the job, not least professionalism and dedication to the role. Greenwood is surrounded by model professionals, but can look to no better examples than that of Cavani, who has earned rave reviews during his short Old Trafford career so far for his forensic preparation, and fellow Academy alumnus Marcus Rashford.
“I’ve come a long way really. I always knew I could take the pressure, take it into the first team,” Mason said earlier this month. “It’s been a good journey and there have been lots of ups and downs, but I’m only 19 and I’m ready to carry on fighting for the badge and for United.
“I had Marcus, Scott [McTominay], Jesse [Lingard] and Paul [Pogba], the likes of them coming up through the Academy. It’s them just leaving little footprints behind you that you’ve got to follow, do what they did and take it in your stride, really. When you come up to the first team it’s like a family anyway, so you just do what you do. You couldn’t ask for anyone better with Marcus being in a similar situation that I have, and then there’s Cavani who has won it all. He’s played for a number of years and it’s perfect timing for him to come into the club at the time he did. He’s helped me a lot this season – he speaks to me sometimes and tries to help me work on my heading and stuff like that. He’s a nice lad and I’m very pleased that he’s here.
“You always need the older players in the team who have done it all, and then you’ve got the younger players looking up to them and you feed on stuff they’ve done. You just watch them in training and you add it to your game. You’ve got the likes of Nemanja [Matic], who has won Premier Leagues with Chelsea. You’ve got Juan [Mata], who has played for many years. You’ve got Bruno [Fernandes] in behind you in that no.10 position and he’s always talking, always giving me tips on playing. You’ve got a lot of older players you can just watch and take note of.”
Everywhere he turns within the confines of the Aon Training Complex or the first-team dressing room, Greenwood has a wealth of examples to probe for advice or look to for guidance. Above and beyond all that second-hand knowledge, however, there’s no substitute for first-hand experience, and he has amassed as much invaluable knowhow in the tests of this term as in the free-scoring joy of last.
With a broadened view of the attacking art and the physical rigours of playing Premier League football in his teens, Mason cuts an increasingly worldly-wise figure, recognising that he cannot stop learning and improving.
“We’re all good players here at United, so there is never time to relax because there could be that kid coming up who wants to take your position,” he said. “You’ve got to always want to keep fighting. You’ve got to always want to play football and I always want to play for United, and be the player scoring goals for Manchester United.”
This article was originally published on 4 May 2021, prior to Mason's 100th appearance for the club.