In a night of tense football, Manchester United just about beat West Ham 1-0 at Old Trafford.
Being that the match was low on action, it would be tempting to say that the defenders were the story. And to be sure, the West Ham boys all put their bodies on the line well and for Manchester United their captain Harry Maguire was particularly excellent in handling everything West Ham could conjure up. And of course Luke Shaw excelled yet again at both ends of the field.
But the most consequential thing on the night, beyond the result of course, was Mason Greenwood’s performance as striker.
It’s easy to laugh at Greenwood this season, his goal tally of 4 (1 in the Premier League) is miles off his total from his breakout season last year where he bagged 17 (10 in the league), and it would be easy to look at him and mark him as a player who had a flukey goalscoring run in 2019/20 and is now being “exposed.”
That would be easy, but it would be wrong.
Luke Shaw for Man Utd vs. West Ham:
◉ Most final ⅓ passes (35)
◉ Most ball recoveries (9)
◉ Most crosses (7)
◉ Most tackles made (3)
◎ 106 touches
◎ 8 passes into the box
◎ 6 touches in the opp box
◎ 2 chances created
◎ 1 clean sheet
Another superb display. pic.twitter.com/8HV3OmT2HR
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 14, 2021
Yes there’s no doubt that Greenwood’s production has fallen off a cliff, but it’s worth looking at how he’s used by United. Usually as a right-winger in a 4-2-3-1 where he’s given freedom to cut infield but also he is most definitely not the team’s striker; that role has more often been given to Edinson Cavani and Anthony Martial, both missing tonight.
Playing out wide on the right really reduces the quality of chances being created for Greenwood by his team-mates, especially as he’s often tasked with creating shots himself. This is why playing him up-front like tonight is so important (and that doesn’t mean he can’t create as he did when he looped in a gorgeous cross for Marcus Rashford).
So yes, 10 goals vs. 1 is bad, but then if you look at his expected goals (xG), which measures the quality of shots he’s taking, it’s basically the same. In 2019/20 Greenwood had an xG of 2.91 and this season it’s 2.76.
That means he’s taking basically the same kind of shots as last season, and without the hot streak he had last season (yes that critique is accurate) the shots simply aren’t being hit as sweetly or accurately.
Compared to last season, Greenwood’s expected goals on target (xGOT) which measure the chance of scoring based on the placement of the shot in the goal rather than the shot location, is way down from 5.2 to 1.17.
Now, again, Greenwood didn’t score against the Hammers in fact he only hit the target with one of his 5 shots (with 3 of them being blocked) but he actually played superbly. In addition to the glorious cross, he led the line nicely. While he wasn’t always in the box, but he drifted to find space and twice came within inches of scoring, once when a rasping drive was palmed onto the post and another time when he struck a shot fiercely and early onto the woodwork directly. He also forced a great stop from Fabianski as he raced onto a Rashford pass.
West Ham had as many shots on target against Man Utd this evening as David Moyes has Premier League wins at Old Trafford as a visiting manager.
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 14, 2021
This was the display of a young man growing into playing his natural position at the elite level. Faced with an army of giants at the back for West Ham, a true parked bus, Greenwood still found a way to get shots off. And good shots, better shots than the half-chances he was inexplicably smashing into the back of the net last season. He found the kind of spaces and chances in the box that a striker should.
Anthony Martial has underwhelmed this season, and Edinson Cavani is an injury-prone veteran. Mason Greenwood should not start on the right for Manchester United again; he must be deployed through the centre because if he can bring this kind of focus, awareness and energy against teams who don’t have five gigantic defenders in the box then good things will happen for The Red Devils.
Greenwood’s movement, skill and pace hurt West Ham, they’d hurt less defensive sides even more. And if he keeps playing as a striker then it’s far more likely that he will get more good chances created for him as well, which will bump up that xG to more prosperous levels.
And when that happens, Mason Greenwood’s incredible shooting ability should lead to goals, goals and more goals.