It’s easy to get lost. In the woods. With all the surrounding trees, reaching heights that scale way beyond that of us humans. They can block out any light, making our orientation to get out of our lost ways harder. The animals within that can jump out at you, attack you. There is a plethora of things to fear if you are in the forest.
It’s easy to get lost. As a defender. You have to keep your eye on the ball. Shift him onto his weaker foot. Wait, wait, wait. Just wait for him to commit. The problem is that it’s Mason Greenwood you’re waiting for. The signature step-overs and his equal adeptness at striking off both feet, you don’t know where the ball will be shifted. Once it has, you’re a second off and he sends the ball careening towards the net. Such is his accuracy, he often hits it low and hard into the unreachable corners for the keeper.
As the season entered its final third, Greenwood began starting more Premier League games. Abruptly disrupted by lockdown due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, it worked to his advantage. Only two times would he be on the bench out of the last 12 games. He was still more than 7 months from his 19th birthday during the first of those starts, vs Watford.
This is no ordinary youngster. Frequently, during the 2018/19 season, as the team floundered under its previous manager, solace was found in Greenwood. The consistency he was finding the back of the net in the youth matches with was startling. The variety of the finishes were maddening, in an exciting way. It was not just the goal-scoring though. The overall play, the tightness of his touch, the link up play, the physicality (amongst his age group). Looking like the prototypical centre forward, the conversation switched to ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ he would make it. The excitement only swelled in pre-season, after he made a few cameo appearances during the back end of that season. The departure of Romelu Lukaku and lack of replacement left a space. A door ajar for young Mason. By season’s end, he had filled it.
Just like in the forests though, you can very quickly go from knowing exactly where you are, to not knowing what your next step will be. If anything could go wrong for the young England starlet, it seemed as if it did within a very short period of time in September. A breach of conduct on international duty first. Then, the media splashing his face on the front page for a balloon scandal. This only compounded his own lack of form, which was mirroring Man Utd’s own poor form.
Defenders and teams are wiser to his threats because as gifted as he is, there are still somatic flaws as he still plays through his growth. Doubling up on him, particularly with the lack of support inside and outside him, makes it much easier and has made him look somewhat one dimensional. So the questions are swirling about the kid. The boy that was putting his name in between the likes of Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney, the crème de la crème of young English stars.
The questions are overstated however. Such is life in the hallowed halls of Carrington and Old Trafford, the negatives are blown to such proportion you start to wonder whether there was ever any good. The best of Greenwood’s good lies most in the fact that his ball striking is quite phenomenal. So much so that the two attackers ahead of him in Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were placed behind the young man when the manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, ranked them in terms of finishing. As alluded to earlier, his proficiency in finding the corners is sensational.
Statistically, the best way to show you how well his striking is would be by the comparison of his xG to his post-shot xG. According to the figures of Twenty3, by the protracted season’s end, Greenwood would amass an xG of 5.61. Scoring 10 goals, this would be he was scoring at almost double the rate of the average shots he was taking. However, the problem with xG that a lot of people don’t seem to realise is that it is an average. Using a variety factors, it uses historical data to work out the likelihood of a shot ending up in the net. It looks indiscriminately and not at the type of player who is taking it. In essence, over-performance from forwards should be expected and even more so when they are particularly good at putting the ball in net.
Then again, scoring 1.78 times that xG rate is levels of over performing that only the godly talents ever seem to reach. But then you look at his post shot xG, taking into consideration things after the shot has been taken. The height and power of the shot along with the keeper’s positioning. The level of striking technique is proclaimed by the fact this figure is brought up to 8.15. Essentially, he was increasing the probability of his shot going in by about 45%. It brings his over-performance compared to his post-shot xG to a more acceptable, but still startlingly high, 1.22.
This is with either foot. The liking to his left has become more apparent the more he has played senior football. But, his right foot is still quite strong. The fact he takes penalties with his right foot, even in his senior berth. The goal against Astana in the Europa League and Bournemouth in the Premier League show the incredible strength and accuracy that he can hit the ball with. So perhaps it is just a case of Greenwood’s talents being a contravening factor to xG
What has been the issue this season?
He hasn’t been hitting the same heights this season though. 1 goal in 10 games, the equivalent of 7 full games in terms of minutes played. In terms of minutes, he played the equivalent of 15 full games last season. Considering most of those minutes came as the season closed, you would expect him to finish with more appearances this year.
There’s a clear change in his shooting accuracy. Across last season, it was 52%. This season, it has halved. His shot attempts in general have hardly changed, even slightly increasing. So just from those numbers, he is no longer getting his shots on target. He has one less blocked shot this season than he did in the whole of the last. 3 less shots off target when compared to last too. This all while having 20 less shots. The problem is clear: Inaccuracy is crippling Greenwood. Be it ring rust from the short turnaround in seasons. Typical inconsistent form expected of a young player maybe. No matter the why, his greatest strength has been his big weakness.
Teams now double up on him. Engineering goal scoring opportunities whereby he can pick and choose to go with his left or right has been cut off. Before, as he had the defender 1v1, they were at his relative mercy. Now, in a show of respect for his ability, teams seldom leave him in such situations anymore. Aaron Wan Bissaka is neither the best on or off the ball offensively. Defenders are never worried about an overlap so there is difficulty in generating some space for Greenwood. It is why he has so many blocked and off target shots this season. The extra precision needed to get a shot through bodies often means it is blocked or goes past the post.
If you move, the ball will come
That’s not the only way to score goals though. Having to generate your own chances should not be the main way to goal. Rather a feather in the cap to use when the more typical ways of scoring are shut out. Ironically, two of the three goals he has notched this season has come from when he has veered away from solitary chance creation. This method would benefit his goal-scoring tally more as well
Against RB Leipzig at home, the opening goal came from a slide ball from Paul Pogba to Greenwood. He ran from the right side to the left, striking back across the keeper into the goal. The angle was acute and the finish just emblazoned his prowess more. But it was just him and the keeper to beat. No wall of opposition players between him and the keeper. Playing on the last shoulder of the man and exploiting the space in behind. It is something he does not do enough of. Likewise, staying with the width of the post. He done for the West Ham game, where a beautiful touch again set up a strike into the keeper’s bottom left.
However, the Carrington youth graduate, for all of his shooting experience, lacks the instinctive movement which gets you into the better shooting locations. He likes to front up to the ball players and have the ball played into feet, rather than spin in behind the stretch the play. Nor does he make any double movements within short distances to gain yards when the ball is in wide areas in order to manufacture space for an impending pass or cross into the area. Improving his heading has been mentioned by Solskjaer as an easy way of getting his numbers up further.
In his defence, both of these goals came as a centre forward, whether it was a two or lone striker. Long term, his future lies centrally. The issue is that in the big burly Premier League, the centre backs physically dominant against him. The ball neither sticks nor can he compete in aerial 50/50s. The 1-0 loss against Arsenal in November was an example, as Arsenal’s centre-back Gabriel displayed his physical presence against Greenwood multiple times in the first half. The game against Leipzig, this time away, saw more mature play in that regard. Unfortunately, it came in a losing result that consigned us to Europa League football. Much of the deserved acclaim was lost in the fallout of Man Utd but more consistency in that area of play would only help his case.
All in all, these are things that come with experience. He has just turned 19. The flaws are tantamount to creases easily ironed out. Greenwood has this season been hamstrung by several factors, many of which have little to do with him. United’s lack of structure or importance of freedom, however you may see fit to call, will be hard for a younger player. We saw with Martial and Rashford how the strict guidance they had from Van Gaal made them look far better during their formative years, in stark contrast to the more established players. Having a clear idea of what to do as a young player will only be beneficial.
In the short term. Long term, being able to solve problems on the pitch is crucial. When you play as loosely as United do offensively, it is integral that you are recognising space to move into, even if it is out of your zone. Often times, Greenwood maintains his width but in a stationary fashion. In positional sense, this is good as it provides an option to switch as the Red Devils constantly build down the left but making a run, a shorter run, rather than the bending run, all the way to the left channel, would solve one type of movement issue he has. Because on the right hand side, being able to be at the back stick can get you a number of goals and it is a trait that will come in handy later on in his career.
The transfer mist of a right winger has shrouded Old Trafford for the past year. It is not Greenwood’s favoured position. A surprising factor, it is no longer. Ways in which to tackle this have not been explored, from where I am watching. Though, Greenwood’s ability can be greatly underappreciated. In combining with others, dribbling and his general play work, he can be quite impressive.
In terms of having the most trustworthy ball retention in the whole squad, he sits in the upper echelons with Donny van der Beek, Martial and Juan Mata. Technically, he is smooth, obviously constantly switching the ball between his left and right boot as he tries to wriggle his way out of tight situations. He finds ways sometimes. Other times, his lack of strength gets the better of him, being ushered off it by the opponent. Again however, once he has matured into his body, this ability to guard the ball and keep it in possession will do him wonders as a central striker. And this is all it is for Greenwood. It is all in the details.
The Other Side
The saying goes that “You can’t see the forest for the trees”, as in you let the smaller details consume you to the point whereby the bigger picture is lost on you. With the Man Utd striker, the trees are important. Getting back to some sort of accuracy with his shooting is integral. Making sure he improves in goal-orientated movement rather than coming towards the ball is imperative. Keeping up the rigours of gym work, the improvement during lockdown enabling Ole to play him more once football returned, so that he cannot be shaken off the ball as often. These details are normal. Greenwood is not lost. More like he is going through a tunnel. It’s a journey where eventually, barring any missteps, he should come out the other side.
The ones that are lost are those outside. Those media has jumped out to attack him for the debacle in Iceland and over-exaggerating the balloon fiasco. Solskjaer was rightly fuming because of the lack of care England showed him during his first call up. Those fans that put down form of a young player to not being good enough, fans that were probably criminal of this with Marcus Rashford. This on top of having to deal with the passing of a friend through suicide, it was a wonder why it was visible that Greenwood was struggling mentally just a few months ago. It is blocking the light, making it harder for him to orientate himself through these tough times. It’s easy enough to get lost on your own.