After years of indifference and relative failure compared to their illustrious recent past, the ‘old Manchester United’ may just have emerged from their slumber.
The club were on a 19-game unbeaten streak before Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final loss to Chelsea (W14 D5), their best run of form without a loss in all competitions since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013
Bruno Fernandes, the Red Devils’ January acquisition is rightly getting the praise as the catalyst in midfield. After all, the Portuguese player started his career at United with only one loss in 17 games in all competitions (W12 D5), scoring nine times and assisting a further eight goals. But the emergence of Mason Greenwood on the right has also helped Manchester United play some of their most eye-catching football this season.
Solskjaer is preaching Manchester United’s well-established policy of using younger players where possible, using the youngest starting XI in the Premier League this season on average at 25 years and 98 days.
The Norwegian has given 2020 minutes to teenage players this season, with Greenwood accounting for over half (1145).
Only two teenage Premier League players have been given more playing time this season than him, Max Aarons who turned 20 in January and Bukayo Saka who has made an impression at Arsenal for his number of assists this season.
Greenwood, who became Manchester United’s youngest ever Premier League starter on the final day of last season against Cardiff City (17 years and 223 days), has had to bide his time, at least in the league.
Daniel James’ arrival from Swansea City last summer meant a competitor on the right for Greenwood and the Welshman made an immediate impact for United, scoring in three of his first four Premier League games.
However since then, James has scored just once in 40 matches, against LASK in the Europa League in March, with that strike being his only direct goal contribution in 21 club matches in 2020. Greenwood used the Europa League as a proving ground in 2019, scoring four times in the group stage for United, as well as becoming United’s youngest European scorer ever with a goal against Astana (17 years 353 days).
Those performances ensured a place in the thoughts of Solskjaer long term.
Greenwood has made 19 Premier League appearances as a substitute for United this season, the most by any player for the club in a Premier League season. If anyone knows the importance of cameos, then it’s probably Solskjaer, who made his own name for the Red Devils in that manner.
James’ downturn in form and Greenwood’s rise through the ranks has seen Solskjaer opt for the latter more regularly since the restart, given his superior contribution to goals, as well as being nearly as creative on a per-90 basis across the campaign.
James arguably prefers to run into space whereas Greenwood is happier running at defenders, so both offer alternatives to the United manager.
James does carry the ball an average of 14.2m, the best average figure in the Premier League this season for any player who has played more than 700 minutes, showing an ability to progress the ball forward. However, 11% of Greenwood’s carries this season have resulted in a shot from the youngster, compared to just 5% for James, showing a desire from Greenwood to instigate the attack rather than be just part of it.
Greenwood’s 10 Premier League starts since the beginning of December have yielded a return of six goals and one assist.
Based on expected goals, Greenwood should have scored 2.5 non-penalty goals in the Premier League this season but has nine to his name. Only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fares better in this regard, with team-mate Anthony Martial also in the top five.
However, Greenwood’s return from his total of shots is far above what is expected (241% higher), suggesting that his overperformance over this short period of time is not sustainable long-term. There was a hint of this in his performance against Southampton as he was effectively shut out of the match by Ryan Bertrand.
Regardless, Greenwood’s knack of finding the target from the same area of the field is reaping rewards, with six of his nine goals coming from a similar position, right off-centre from the penalty spot. Two more come from the opposite side, with one of the nine coming from inside the six-yard box.
Should he keep up his impressive performances, he could be looking at becoming the first player since Michael Owen in 1997/98 to score 10+ goals in a Premier League season aged 18 or under.
Robbie Fowler is the only other player to do this in a Premier League season, with Wayne Rooney the last person to net nine times aged 18 or under. It isn’t bad company to keep.
Greenwood’s 32 games before turning 19 are comfortably the most for a Manchester United player in the Premier League and 13 more than team-mate Marcus Rashford who burst onto the scene four years prior (19 games before 19).
Greenwood’s minutes before his 19th birthday are lower than the likes of Rashford and Ryan Giggs, mainly due to his use as a substitute earlier in 2019/20, but it is higher than Cristiano Ronaldo.
Only three names in Manchester United’s post-war history have scored more goals in all competitions than Greenwood before turning 19, including the legendary George Best.
Greenwood has until October to try to surpass Norman Whiteside’s tally of 26 goals, with plenty of time to move his way up the rankings.
The hype around Greenwood seems unavoidable, especially with the ease in which he’s slotted into an attacking triumvirate with Rashford and Martial, both of whom have experience of high expectations early on from the Old Trafford support.
Martial made his United debut in 2015 at 19, scoring from the bench against Liverpool and twice against Southampton a game later.
Rashford was handed his first appearance for the club after the Frenchman was injured in the warm-up against FC Midtjylland and duly scored twice. He then followed that up with a brace on his Premier League debut, so by comparison Greenwood has been given the slow burn experience towards stardom.
All three have hit 15+ goals for Manchester United this season (Rashford and Martial both have 22 to Greenwood’s 16), with all three having their best scoring seasons in their career.
The trio’s goals account for 57% of United’s total in all competitions this season, showing how important all three are in their own way. Their minutes per goal figures all sit around the same range – Greenwood scoring every 140 minutes, Rashford 141 and Martial 144.
This is the first time since 2012/13 that Manchester United have had three scorers bag 15+ goals each. However, it’s arguable that the last time United had a trio capable playing together this cohesively was in 2008, with the Champions League-winning combination of Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo as a front-three.
That trio was heavily reliant on Ronaldo’s outstanding campaign in which he scored 42 goals in 49 games.
The early signs of this fledging trio are encouraging. Martial, Rashford and Greenwood have started together nine times since November, with Solskjaer reluctant to experiment on the combination too soon in Greenwood’s development.
In three of those matches (Partizan Belgrade in November, Newcastle in December and Bournemouth in July) all three players have found the net. Across those nine fixtures, the trio have scored a combined 22 goals (2.4 per game). That’s a better rate than the 2007/08 trio, who scored between them an average of 2.1 goals per game when they all started, with all three scoring in four separate matches in the season.
As evidenced by the match against Southampton and Crystal Palace, when one is perceived to be having a weaker game, the other two step up, as Greenwood failed to score but both Rashford and Martial provided finishes in each match.
By looking at the expected goals maps since the Premier League restarted, it’s clear that each player has a defined role but equally some flexibility within that. Martial is trusted to stay centrally and finish chances within the box, with Rashford and Greenwood trying efforts from further back.
Rashford has acted as another linkman in this formation after Fernandes, providing three assists since the Premier League resumed (all for Martial). However he’s performing marginally below his expected goals numbers (excluding penalties, 3.3 xG, 2 goals scored).
Whether he intended for it to happen as soon as it has, Solskjaer appears to have stumbled upon his ideal XI with a blistering attack ably bolstered by a balanced midfield of Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic sitting deep.