Is Mason Greenwood Having A Better Campaign Than Last Season?
The 19 year olds goals are down but Mason Greenwood is becoming a much more complete player.
Mason Greenwood was hardly an unknown commodity. In 2017-18 Manchester United fans were hearing about the 16 year old who scored 16 goals in 18 U18 Premier League appearances. The following year the excitement only built as Greenwood scored 26 goals in 26 appearances across various youth levels, was included on the bench by Jose Mourinho for United’s final Champions League group stage match against Valencia, and was later given his first team debut for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
His first start came in the Europa League and naturally it was capped off with him scoring a 73rd minute winner. In the Premier League he was at first limited to appearances off the bench though he was still quite impactful. His first Premier League goal was a 77th minute equalizer against Sheffield United. His second was a 77th minute equalizer against Everton.
For all the hype, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer managed his minutes and expectations brilliantly, being careful not to throw too much at the youngster. Greenwood was a natural goalscorer but as should be expected from a youngster he lacked the all around game - specifically defensive awareness - to be trusted as a starter. Post lockdown he made major improvements in that area and quickly found himself in United’s first choice XI.
When all was said and done Greenwood had scored 17 goals in his debut season, the most ever from a United teenager.
With 17 goals to his name and a year of experience United fans were expecting another outpouring of goals this season. But just over halfway through the campaign Greenwood has just a single goal in the Premier League and only four in all competitions.
What’s happened to him? Is this a simple sophomore slump or has he been completely figured out?
Greenwood’s season began with what should have been a highlight of his career, his first career England call up and first England cap. Instead it turned into a nightmare when he along with Phil Foden made a silly mistake that 19-20 year olds have been making for years and will continue making for years.
The English media jumped on this, slandering and vilifying Greenwood as they love to do with BAME and Manchester United players (Foden got away pretty unscathed from the media). Adding to the heavy media scrutiny was the lack of preseason and it was only natural for Greenwood to get off to a slow start this season.
Nevertheless a quick glance at the numbers suggests asking if there’s something wrong with Greenwood this season is the wrong question entirely.
The question we really should be asking is is Greenwood having an even better season than last year?
This is Mason Greenwood’s radar from last season.
And now compare to his radar from this season.
They look almost identical. So the question of, “has he been better” still stands.
Obviously when it comes to goal scoring the answer is no. He’s way down. But last season Greenwood scored 10 Premier League goals from an xG of 3.6 (Statsbomb via Fbref)so regression was always going to happen.
Greenwood is an exceptional finisher and his ability to shoot with both feet creates an uncertainty for defenders and goalkeepers that lead one to think the regression wouldn’t have been this extreme. That’s where a bit of the sophomore slump comes in.
Greenwood is a natural striker with great instincts for goal. When he gets the ball in or near the box his first and only instinct is shoot. Those are great instincts, but it also didn’t take opponents long to figure that out and come up with a plan to defend it.
As soon as Greenwood got the ball in the box, defenses would simply collapse on him.
Again four defenders converge on Greenwood with no one bothering to follow the run of Rashford even though a simple pass would have put him in a really dangerous situation and forced the Spurs defenders to start moving which likely would have opened up a cutback to Anthony Martial.
Even in December the same thing was still happening.
To put it simply, Greenwood was entirely too predictable. Until he developed the other areas of his game around the box (IE passing and creativity) teams were going to keep collapsing on him in the box.
This obviously wasn’t going to happen overnight but now that it’s been a bit more than half a season we’ve got enough of a sample size to take a closer look.
By all means, he has gotten better.
Here are some numbers that didn’t make it into the initial radar. The ones highlighted in green are where there have been improvements in areas that I feel are especially important.
The obvious first one that jumps out is his expected assists. That’s a noticeable jump but there are several other important areas. For starters, his targets per 90 are up, which means a combination his teammates are looking for him more and he’s doing a better job getting open. His progressive passes are up (and progressive passes received down) a sign that he’s coming a bit deeper to help progress the ball and thus contributing more to build up play, but he’s still touching the ball in the box more often. His carries into the box aren’t up by a lot, but his total box entires (carries, completed passes, and successful crosses) are way up, telling us he’s added more creativity to his game.
Numbers are great and all but as any numbers guy will tell you, you can’t rely exclusively on them. You need good old fashioned video as well.
Based on the eye test (in other words: in my opinion) Greenwood certainly looks like he’s turned a corner in a number of areas over the past few weeks, and nothing summed it up better than this play against Everton.
Taking defenders on was something that Greenwood did really well in the youth level but we hadn’t really been seeing it for the first team. A lot of that came from Greenwood being deployed on the right wing and not having enough confidence in his right foot.
Don’t get me wrong, insidethe box Greenwood is as two footed as they come and is lethal with his right foot. But deeper on the pitch he often appeared hesitant to take defenders on if it meant putting it on his right foot. It’d often slow United down especially when they were looking to counter.
When Greenwood drifts over to the left side, he’s far more comfortable blowing past defenders on his left foot to contribute to the buildup (for some reason it’s not letting me add the gifs here but we’re talking Bruno’s famous counter attacking goal against Brighton last season, and a Rashford goal against Brighton this season that ended up being ruled offside).
So it was great to see Greenwood blow by Lucas Digne against Everton last week, and here’s what happened as a result of it.
Greenwood easily carries the ball into the box but now, instead of four defenders collapsing on him it can only be three (as he’s already disposed of Digne. The next thing to notice is midfielder doesn’t fully commit to collapsing on Greenwood, instead holding to cover the potential layoff pass to McTominay. That forces Andre Gomes to get closer to Greenwood, allowing him to blow by him.
Greenwood scuffs his shot wide (it likely would have gotten blocked anyway) which you don’t expect from him, but he’s able to get the shot in the first place because he’s trusting his right foot more and he’s added enough unpredictability to his all around game that defenses have to honor that.
The added use of his right foot has seen Greenwood’s successful dribbles per 90 increase by 0.70. That’s lead to an increase in drawing fouls, a pretty good thing for someone who touches the ball in the box pretty often, or when you have Bruno Fernandes, Luke Shaw, and Alex Telles to take set pieces along with Scott McTominay and Harry Maguire serving as pretty good set piece threats in the box.
Perhaps nothing sums up why we shouldn’t worry about the goal scoring more than Greenwood’s contribution to United’s ninth goal against Southampton. Greenwood’s renewed dexterity has forced defenders to start playing him more honestly, which re-opens his ability to put the ball on his left foot. Then from outside the box he’s able to pick out a beautiful ball to Bruno Fernandes to set up Dan James.
All that is the result of rounding out his game. As his game continues to round out, defenders will no longer be able to cheat when defending him. They’ll have to play him more honest and his unpredictability will see him quickly become more dangerous.
Greenwood’s goals may be down this season but his all around has continued to develop at a nice and steady pace. Given that United aren’t relying on Greenwood to handle the bulk of their scoring, that development is what’s most important.
And as that all around game develops further, it’s only a matter of time before the goals come roaring back.