Only a handful of players, including Bruno Fernandes and Romelu Lukaku, scored more goals in last season’s Europa League than Mason Greenwood. The teenager struck five times in nine appearances as Manchester United made a run to the competition’s semi-finals, bolstering his reputation as one of the most exciting young talents around.
While Greenwood is still talked about in these terms, he has found his second season as a senior player at Old Trafford more difficult. The 19-year-old has just four goals and two assists in 37 appearances (all competitions) this term, with some even questioning his attitude at points.
It should, however, be taken into consideration that Greenwood has, for the most part, been forced to play out of position for United. The teenager is widely seen as being more suited to a central role, yet an imbalance in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad has resulted in him being deployed on the right wing.
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Now, though, Greenwood could be given a run in the team as a centre forward. Injuries to Edinson Cavani and Anthony Martial have stretched Solskjaer’s squad thin in the attacking positions, and so it seems likely the 19-year-old will start up front in Thursday’s Europa League last 16 second leg against AC Milan at San Siro.
With Cavani struggling for fitness and Martial struggling for form, there has been some discussion over a potential United move for a new number nine this summer, but this is Greenwood’s chance to prove that his future at the club lies through the middle and not out wide.
Greenwood was unfortunate not to find the back of the net in the 1-0 win over West Ham on Sunday, striking the woodwork twice as Solskjaer deployed him as a central striker. There was enough in his performance to suggest United should test the teenager through the middle before spending big in the transfer market.
Last season, Greenwood appeared ready-made for the elite level. This season, however, he has suffered setbacks, none bigger than being sent home from England duty along with Phil Foden for breaking Covid-19 guidelines in Iceland. Greenwood has yet to be called up again, but was named in the England U21 squad this week.
“Has he got something to prove? Every time he gets on the pitch there is an expectation of him because he’s a very good young player,” England U21 boss Aidy Boothroyd said on Monday. “But he is young, he needs guidance and help. Gareth [Southgate] will speak to him before we meet up. I’ll speak to him to see how he is and see how we can get the most out of him.”
Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood have been dropped by England
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As a finisher, Greenwood’s ability cannot be doubted. The 19-year-old strikes the ball as cleanly as anyone else in the English game right now, but can he create the same angles to get shots away as a centre forward as he does when playing off the right wing? Does he have the natural instinct to get to crosses first and play on the shoulder of the last defender like a true number nine does?
Thursday night will most likely be another test of Greenwood’s credentials as a central striker. Solskjaer’s hand may have been forced by injuries in this specific instance, but this is a process the Norwegian needed to go through at some stage to determine what his best teenage talent is truly made of.
Marcus Rashford went through something similar, deployed as a centre forward for a series of games, before it was decided he was more effective cutting inside off the left. If Greenwood wants to stay in the middle, he must build on his encouraging display against West Ham when United face AC Milan on Thursday, and beyond.
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