After a tense night of football, Manchester United beat Astana 1-0 at Old Trafford.
The Red Devils laboured under the weight of expectation all game long. Clearly this was supposed to be a thrashing, with United beating the brains out of Astana, racking up a huge goal count and getting their season up and running. Well when you’re playing with those kind of expectations and you’re also blooding three teenagers (one of whom may not be up to this level of football) in an already struggling side with no real clear idea of how to attack… well, then you get the first 73 minutes of Manchester United vs. Astana.
It was in that 73rd minute, however, that Mason Greenwood struck.
The 17-year-old received the ball just inside the box in the right half-space after a pass from Fred found him in motion. Instantly he stopped, which you’re thinking is a terrible idea because United had been doing stuff like that all night and it wasn’t working, but Greenwood is on a new wave.
The teenager steps back inside onto his left and you could almost see him shuffling across more and then getting swamped by Astana defenders. You’re already preparing to throw up your arms in frustration. You put down your phone, not wanting to accidentally toss it behind the sofa. You’re preparing a savage eye roll and mentally drafting a tweet about how United should sign Erling Haaland because “he knows how to score.”
But then Greenwood’s new wave hits you. Bam. He drops his shoulders and cuts back from his left onto his right. Dorin Rotariu completely bites on the fake and Greenwood instantly has space ahead of him. He’s still wide of goal so again you’re expecting him to look for a cross or cutback, or even worse, try and bring it back onto his left.
Greenwood has other plans though. New wave remember. Immediately he smacks the ball low with his right-foot. A placed shot but one hit with enough power that it just fizzes across the Old Trafford turf, through the goalkeeper’s legs and into the back of the net. An absolutely brilliant goal, far too good for the turgid nonsense that preceded it.
Youngest players to score for Man Utd in European competition:
? Mason Greenwood (17Y 353D)
? Marcus Rashford (18Y 117D)
? George Best (18Y 158D)
Not a bad list to be top of. pic.twitter.com/mARxqTBwHa
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 19, 2019
United had the lead that they craved and they held onto it to claim victory. In fact they should have doubled the lead when Greenwood (hey, him again) played a really smart pass to Jesse Lingard, a diagonal pass into the box that drew the goalkeeper out to close Lingard. All Lingard had to do was pull the ball back for the trailing Greenwood and it would have been 2-0; but instead Lingard shot right at a goalkeeper dead ahead of him and the chance was gone.
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Still, United won. A huge win, in the scheme of the season. Astana were poor opponents but the fact that they were so able to stifle United is really troubling. Part of that is United don’t have an elite creative player in the final third; that really hurts them (and they can’t put Paul Pogba there because then they don’t have an elite creative player in the middle of the park). But the other thing is, United dither.
Marcus Rashford has a real tendency to overthink chances. You can almost see the cogs turning as he contemplates what to do, and this causes him to miss so many chances and half-chances. And this, in turn, effects his touch and confidence meaning that he can’t even take those first-time instinctive chances that he should still be great at.
Greenwood showed Rashford, and everyone else, how to do it. There’s a reason why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer called him the best finisher he’s ever seen. Greenwood was put in a position to score in a key moment and even though he had struggled in the game, he acted swiftly and decisively.
He did one bit of skill, unsettled his marker and created space, then finished quickly and accurately. With the exception of Daniel James, Manchester United players just don’t do that, at least not this season. It’s made life so easy for teams who show up and defend because you know the United players won’t be decisive so you’ll always get another chance to get a block in. And inevitably, those blocks have come.
"Mason Greenwood scored a stunning goal…"
"It almost reminded me of @Persie_Official chopping on that left foot!"
Owen Hargreaves saw shades of RVP about that goal from the latest academy graduate to come good for Man Utd ??
A bright future ahead… pic.twitter.com/SNOqDvjQkb
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) September 19, 2019
Mason Greenwood’s new wave is exactly the example that Manchester United need to follow in the absence of an elite creator in the final third (and even when one arrives, to be honest) because it unsettles opponents, forcing them to act much more quickly. No more dithering, no more trying something fancy; find some space and shoot early. If a 17-year-old can figure it out then older players really should be able to.
If they can’t, then put Greenwood in the First XI right now, because that is the kind of lethal movement and finishing that could save United’s season (and it is a season that needs saving, even already). It was vintage United striker, the kind of thing you could see Ruud van Nistelrooy or Robin van Persie doing. Nothing too complex, just pure unadulterated goalscoring skill. Greenwood’s goal made history because of his age, but the teenager could make even more history this season because of his ability. Hey Ole, get your boys on his wave.