Talk of Mason Greenwood’s heavenly potential continues to dominate headlines at Old Trafford, but there must be a certain sense of duty regarding the prodigy’s human qualities as well.
The 18-year-old keeps adapting to the rigours of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s regime since becoming a firm fixture in Manchester United’s starting XI over recent months, a call he’s answered with some aplomb up to now.
It was evident in last Thursday’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, however, that Greenwood was somewhat lacking in his usual killer instinct. It didn’t help that the teenager started under suspicions of an ankle knock he suffered during the disappointing 2-2 draw against Southampton only three days prior, though the Evening Standard’s James Robson argued underuse was the concern:
Perhaps, though, the blip against Palace was just that, as the teenager gave United their sole goal against West Ham in a 1-1 draw on Tuesday. Rather than underuse, the blip could just as easily been due to fatigue rearing its head, caused by the onslaught of matches from a condensed Premier League schedule.
United romantics may be divided on that very matter. The club has long been a proponent of trusting one’s academy and allowing the youth to be given proper first-team chances, but there are risks in the short and long-term that could arise as a result of firing the young guns too often too soon.
Therein lies the debate, though, as Greenwood is emerging from the file labelled “generational” just when the Red Devils could use such a talent to reignite the engines for success at Old Trafford. Despite his age, he was the most accurate shooter in the Premier League when play resumed in mid-June, finding the target with 57.1 percent of his attempts up to that point.
His star has only grown since then, in part thanks to a four-goal spree over the space of three games and the relationships he's forming as part of a front three alongside Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, per Statman Dave:
A brace in the recent 5-2 victory over Bournemouth in particular displayed the best attributes Greenwood brings to the team when at his best—an extra lick of acceleration, sublime touch and shooting clout to make legends weep:
United have a rare privilege in that for any player good enough to spring early from their academy into the first team, they can be the start and finish line. The club will hope Marcus Rashford spends his entire career at the Theatre of Dreams; the same goes for Greenwood and likely Brandon Williams as well. Bearing that in mind and the fact there is no timer on when his potential expires, it’s in their best interests to manage his involvement proficiently in order to maximise that potential.
But the club must tread carefully.
Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen are English prime examples as to what can happen when a player is tasked with too much too soon, before suffering down the line as a result. Each player made their Premier League debut very young (16 and 17, respectively) before taking on leadership roles for club and country, but both showed signs of degradation earlier than is normal for forwards.
Another compatriot, Raheem Sterling, has perhaps shown some signs of the tiredness that can come from accumulating seasons involving 40 or more games in succession.
The Manchester City speedster turns 26 in December and displayed rare form in the first half of 2019-20 en route to racking up a career-high 27 goals in all competitions, but his output noticeably tailed off in the second half of the season before being revived post-lockdown.
There need not be any alarm bells sounded just yet given Greenwood is still in his first senior season with the club and showing all the signs that he’s loving this phase of the journey. It stands to reason that while Greenwood is one of the three best attackers at Old Trafford despite being born in 2001 (don’t dwell on that too long), but it is in Solskjaer’s best interests to find suitable rotation options. An ideal outcome would still nurture Greenwood while allowing the likes of Daniel James or Andreas Pereira to grow as realistic options themselves.
And Greenwood is nothing if not a prospect worth nurturing given his shooting eye is already proving itself to be of unique quality, per Sam McGuire:
With Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba hopefully pulling the strings at Old Trafford for some years to come, there’s a design being drawn up to realise United’s fantasies once more at the Theatre of Dreams, perhaps sooner than many might have expected at this time last year.
Greenwood could outshine everyone else at the club to beam brightest in the near future—that much is clear from what we’ve seen—but United’s responsibility is to ensure that effect can be sustained for as long as possible for the sake of the talent they’ve been blessed with.