UTD Unscripted: My first glimpse of Greenwood
When you go to a new club as Under-18s manager, one of the first conversations you have is asking about promising players coming up in the younger age groups.
When I came in at United in 2016 and had that conversation, there was one name first on everybody’s lips:
“Make sure you see the kid, Mason Greenwood.”
He was probably Under-12s or Under-13s at that point. I think everyone throughout the Academy at that stage was aware there was a big talent coming up and he was a player everyone at the older age groups was to look out for.
I remember the first time I saw Mason play, in a game at the Cliff for the Under-13s. He was a lot smaller than he is now, obviously, but even relative to his age he wasn’t particularly big at that stage. I remember him picking the ball up on the right, pulling off a double lollipop, coming inside and shooting on his left foot with really explosive power. Five minutes later he went on his right and smacked one with his right foot, so it was that two footedness really and ability to strike the ball with power with both feet that stood out.
When you know you’ve got a special player at that age, you look at him technically and tactically and think: OK, what attributes are going to get him into the first-team? For Mason, a lot of that was around his shooting and his ability to beat people one-on-one, so you make sure you hone in on those skills and make sure you make those strengths as strong as they possibly can be. You have to really exaggerate his strengths.
You also look at the areas that might hold him back and make sure a plan is put in place on the physical and technical side to ensure he can work on them, to develop him. United have always done really well on that. There’s the mental and the pastoral side with which the club do a really good job with all their young players: knowing the character of the boy, what his mentality is like and his habits are like and what we need to work on with him. There’s good psychological support put around him as well. So it’s managing all the different aspects of his development.
Once you’ve got that programme and that support around him, it’s important to map out his pathway and programme and when it’s going to be right for him to take certain steps. When is it going to be right for him to set certain challenges? I think when he was 15 he started playing with the Under-18s so we could see how he coped with that. Generally, he adapted very well but there were still times where he dropped down to the Under-16s because we felt like he would get more success at that age group, for a couple of games maybe, to get extra practice on his finishing. Then he would step up again.
We had to choose the right time for him to go on certain tournaments: he was probably 16 and we decided to take him away for two weeks to the Dallas Cup, which was an Under-19 tournament in America. He had to get time out of school and go away with the full-time professionals, but he really excelled in that tournament and rose to the challenge. He really enjoyed it and it was the right challenge for him. At the end of that 16s season he went to an Under-20 tournament, which was probably the first time he’d been away with some of the Under-23 players. We saw how he adapted to that and he played against different opposition who were three or four years older than him. Again, he did really well and I think he won Player of the Tournament, but on the other hand I think there were times when he went up to the 23s or the 18s when he was very young and he didn’t do so well. It’s about being ready for those times he doesn’t quite reach a certain level. When the challenge is set, we’re there to support him and help him understand what he can improve on or how he can do it next time. And then when he does excel, it’s about ‘what’s the next challenge, what’s the next thing we can lay out for him?’
Of course, it’s also about making sure he stays grounded and humble and making sure he’s got the right challenges ahead of him. There’s a lot to it, obviously. A lot of people involved – Mason’s family first and foremost. His mum Melanie and dad Andrew are fantastic, really supportive. His grandparents are really supportive. And then there are a lot of people at the club through the years who have guided him from a technical, tactical, psychological and physical perspective and also mapped out the pathway so that he’s getting the right challenges at the right time.
That pathway ultimately leads to the first team and there was never any question about Mason’s capability of playing in the first team at some point. The talent was always there. The challenge is obviously playing in the first team and staying in the first team and putting him up at the right time when he was going to be ready to play regular games and make starts and play back-to-back games.
When he first went up with the first team in 2018, he went as a first-year scholar and went to America on that tour. He did well but you could see still in training he wasn’t quite able to get the success he was before. Physically he maybe wasn’t quite able to get his shots off, or not able to get away from defenders. At that point he probably wasn’t quite ready, but over the course of the next six or seven months, watching him in training every day, you could see what was happening. He was getting his shots off more, getting away from the defenders, able to hold off people a little bit more.
So it was over the course of that first year really where you started to see he was going to be ready for some minutes at some stage. It didn’t quite come earlier for a couple of reasons. He had a couple of injuries and missed a couple of opportunities, but in the end he started against Cardiff in the last game of the 2018/19 season, and was comfortable straightaway.
That was a big moment.
Playing at Old Trafford in the Premier League, Mason adapted straightaway physically. No problem. Technically he was excellent from that game onwards really. It took him a little more time the next season to establish himself as a first team regular in terms of matchday squads and matchday minutes but I think from his debut you could see if he stayed on the right track it was going to be a matter of time before he started picking up more minutes.
Once a young player has made their debut, there is also the mental side of things that they have to deal with. Everyone’s different. Mentality-wise, Mason’s very different to Brandon who is very different to Axel or other players who have come through the Academy. They’re all different in a way but once you make that debut, there’s a level of scrutiny that comes on you on and off the pitch, probably a level of attention that is a challenge for any young player. Certainly Mason experienced that as well, but in general with Mason, one of his biggest strengths from a mental point of view is that he’s not fazed. He doesn’t get nervous. Very rarely have I seen him nervous. He doesn’t get too worked up about things. He doesn’t fear anything and in the other way he doesn’t get over excited. If he scores or plays well in a big game, he’s not very different the next day, he’s generally pretty stable. With him there was never a big concern of him getting too far ahead of himself. He generally stays pretty level and he’s managed to do that over the last couple of years.
Take his first two full seasons in the first team, for example: 2019/20 and then last season.
I think first season he did so well and then all of a sudden you have the summer and a whole level of scrutiny and attention on him off the pitch and away from football, with the media and things like that, that he had to deal with. He had to come through that spell and learn how he was going to cope with that. On the pitch as well, I think he had such a big impact for us after the first lockdown with his goals and a lot of very similar type of goals where he’d come inside on his left foot. Fantastic shooting ability, get his shots off, shooting through legs and he had a really big impact with that.
Going into the second season then, it was so apparent early on that teams had started to study him more, they’d learned what his strengths were. At times they were doubling and tripling up in certain areas where they knew he was strong. It was nothing we weren’t prepared for and nothing he hasn’t been working for through his whole time in the Academy.
When people become more aware of your A-game and your main strength, that’s when it’s important to have versatility and more strings to your bow. That’s something Mason was working on before last year, but from last year it became this is when you’re going to need this now, Mason. If people are going to double up on one foot, you’re going to have go on the outside sometimes and shoot with that foot. The ability to cross the ball earlier in certain situations: when teams double or triple up, it means there might be a free man in the box. It was things he’s been working on for years, but going into his second season when it became more challenging on the pitch because teams were more aware of his strengths, we were really pleased he adapted his game and added more strings to his bow over the course of the season.
Through it all, he kept that mentality level throughout, and it paid off. One of his most promising games was the win at Tottenham late last season, when you look at the two goals he was involved in. The first was an early cross for Cavani, which was something he rarely did in the Academy or in his first season. He didn’t cross the ball much because he always wanted to go one v one and get his shot off. In that game, straightaway, he took on the early cross, there’s a free man in the box and Mason picked him out for the goal.
And then Mason’s late goal in that game: a one v one situation round the box, people want to double up on him and he’s shown he can go both ways. He went round the outside, right foot, when defenders and goalkeepers expect him to go on his left, and he smashed in his finish. People might not see or understand the work and the detail that he’s put in to develop those different parts of his game but he certainly has done. The fruits came out at times in the second half of last season and you could see the versatility in his game and the different types of goals he was starting to score.
Against Brighton he scored his first header for the senior team, which again was the result of something he works on every single week. It’s not his strongest area, he knows that, but it’s something he wants to improve on. He scored a few in the youth team, he had a little spell of scoring headers. A couple of weeks in a row he scored headers and I’ve been badgering him ever since really, telling him: “You can do it, you’ve got the capability, you have to just practice it more and get in there more.” So the Brighton goal, for the staff and for Mason as well, was one of the most pleasing goals he’s scored for us, not just because it was a header but because when the ball switched it was the intent to get in the box, anticipate and end up in the six-yard box.
If you watch back his movement for that goal, he’s the first one to get alive, first one to move into the box. He anticipates it and it’s a message from all the staff, from Ole downwards, that we’re always trying to drum into him: to anticipate things in the box, to be on the move and if you are then eventually you’ll get lucky and things fall to you. Like it did for that goal.
That message has come from Ole downwards, and it’s great timing for Mason that he’s able to work under such a great striker. There aren’t many better than Ole in the history of the football club for goals in the penalty area, different types of finishes from inside the penalty area, anticipatory movements in the box. Ole was really strong and passionate about that and it’s something for Mason to work on. As finishers, in terms of left foot and right foot, Ole sees similarities between him and Mason and that probably helped with their bond and his willingness to push Mason and give him the opportunity. Likewise, for Mason to know when he’s getting advice off the manager it’s from someone who has been in the penalty box and done it. I think it’s a really beneficial relationship for him. Mason’s lucky with the manager that he’s come under, not just in terms of the goalscoring but how he handles him as a person as well.
He’s been fortunate that he broke into the first team under Ole and also that he’s already spent a year working alongside Edinson Cavani. How Edinson handles himself off the pitch is well documented but his levels of professionalism, concentration, consistency and how he prepares for every training session – before training and then his concentration during sessions – is outstanding. So on that side of it he’s a fantastic role model but then also in the various parts of his game. The way Edinson fights for the ball with his back to goal. The way he challenges in the air, the way he uses his body up against defenders, is something that Mason needs to do and is working on. The obvious bit is the way that Edinson is in the box. His willingness to be in where it hurts, his willingness to be making runs in the six-yard box, to get across defenders, to move, to anticipate, to be there for the rebounds. There are numerous examples last year of Edinson scoring that type of goal and we see it every day in training. He’s the same, so it’s a great relationship really. I think Mason’s eyes light up when you speak to him about Edinson or when you see the two of them working together. There’s a clear respect and admiration on Mason’s side. I think Edinson’s been great in terms of taking Mason under his wing and seeing a talented kid there who can go on and achieve great things. So that’s been really beneficial. We can see, as a staff, improvement in certain areas, like his movement in the box, anticipating things, trying to get in there for the tap-ins and rebounds in the six-yard box and I think a big part of that is having such a good role model, day to day, to watch.
He may only be 19 right now, but Mason is also already there to be seen by the younger lads coming up into the senior squad. He’s so young himself - between him and Anthony Elanga I think there’s only three months – but I think the likes of Anthony or Shola Shoretire look at him, see what he’s done in the first team and the way he’s taking those steps in his stride and it gives them confidence. I’ve got no doubt seeing what Mason’s done in the last two years gives them confidence, assurance and that they can step up – it’s not that different. They can step up and be themselves and show their game. That’s definitely helped them and I think he enjoys not being the youngest one anymore. This pre-season, he’s enjoyed feeling like a more experienced player and when you put him with the younger ones in a team he likes to take the lead and be a bit more vocal now. If someday he could be a good example to younger ones, that would be a nice cycle for him to go through.
Of course, that’s a way in the future yet. He’s still very young. He’s got a long way ahead of him, he’s got a lot to learn and he knows that. His talent has been clear from day one and he’s also shown a lot of mental strength and willingness to get to where he is. But it’s early days in his career. There have been plenty of players down the years who have shone brightly at 18, 19, 20 and maybe not gone on to achieve what they could have achieved. Mason has to be lucky, hopefully stay injury free, stay level-headed, learn the right lessons, be consistent with his work every day, be consistent with his application. What comes in the future is impossible to tell, but he’s giving himself the best chance and doing the right things. If he keeps doing all those things, we think he’s got a really good chance to play here for a number of years and hopefully win trophies and be successful.