Reader Mailbag: What does the future hold for Mason Greenwood
Fans are rightfully excited about what Ralf Rangnick can do with Mason Greenwood but immediate term decisions need to be made that are crucial for his long term development
I enjoyed doing that Donny van de Beek reader mailbag and last week someone else sent me what looks like a simple throwaway question on Twitter. For those that know me closest, you’ll know I’ve had thoughts on Mason Greenwood this season, and since to properly answer this question would take more than two (or three, or four) tweets (as well a few people actively encouraging me to write about this), I figured let’s run the mailbag back and publish the answer!
Thanks to Shivam for the question. There is obviously lots of excitement about Mason Greenwood under Ralf Rangnick as Greenwood is the best talent to come out of the United academy in quite some time and Rangnick not only loves young players but has a great history with them.
Now what do I think?
First things first, Manchester United need to decide what Mason Greenwood’s position is and play him there and only there. No more of this “one day he’s going to play x but for now we’re playing him at y” just to get him on the field. If you believe his future is as a forward/striker, then you gotta start playing him as a forward/striker. If you believe his future is out wide, then you gotta start developing him as a winger.
This is important because right now Mason Greenwood is not a good right winger. He doesn’t do nearly enough ‘winger things’ that a team competing for a title needs their wingers to do consistently. He’s not particularly creative and he doesn’t contribute much in buildup play. 1 One of his biggest issues is his inability (or reluctance) to “catch” a pass and turn on the defender, so in buildup he’s often playing one touch passes straight back to wear they came from.
Greenwood has his moments on the right wing, but too often he’s simply ineffective there or even worse a detriment to the team. There have been plenty of times where Greenwood not being a winger has hurt the team, but it’s all been ok because he’s young, he’s learning, and most importantly, he’s naturally a forward and not a winger.
That excuse can fly for the first two years, but we’re now in Greenwood’s third season as a first team footballer. This is a very important season in his development. This is the season where the habits that you’ve begun forming start to stick and stay with you for your career, and if you’re developing bad habits that’s going to plague you.
If you’re reading this, you know I’m a big defender of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the work he did at United. Having said that, Solskjaer leaving is the best thing that happened to Greenwood because let’s be frank, Greenwood’s development had begun to stagnate under Solskjaer and even worse he was developing terrible habits this year.
Greenwood did start to put things together more in the second half of last season, something I wrote about back in February. In April I talked about players “making the leap” and how Greenwood’s charts made him look poised to have that breakout season this year. It genuinely looked like that was going to happen this season as Greenwood started at center forward in United’s first three games and scored in each of them.
But then United signed Cristiano Ronaldo and things have since changed. The relationship between Ronaldo and Greenwood is testy at best and Greenwood’s game has suffered significantly.
Greenwood isn’t the type of “winger” that Cristiano Ronaldo needs and Ronaldo isn’t the type of striker that’s going to get the best out of a player with Mason Greenwood’s talents. The two were never a good match and despite some assists here and there, it’s not surprising to see how comically low the total of shots each one has primary assisted for the other is.
That was pretty much inevitable, but what wasn’t inevitable was Greenwood regressing on an individual basis. Greenwood has never been great defensively2 but this season he’s taken it to a whole new level. His pressing numbers are down but more than that has been the amount of times he seems to be just walking around. That’s something you can sort of get away with as a striker but kills a team when the winger is doing it.
On top of that - and this isn’t Greenwood’s fault - it just didn’t look like he was getting any good instructions as to what he should be doing. During the month of October it was increasingly common to see Greenwood woefully out of position as United tried to stay compact, which easily lead to questions of “what formation are United actually playing?” and often lead to gaps quickly being opened.
When Greenwood did press he was terrible at it - often running at defenders without cutting off any passing angles making it super easy to get right by him.
We all saw the Liverpool match, I don’t have to sit here and tell you that Mason Greenwood was running around “pressing” like an idiot all match. Yet Statsbomb credits him with ZERO presses for that match. Statsbomb is very strict about being within a certain number of yards of a player while they have the ball to get credit for a “pressure.” That’s how bad Greenwood was that game, he was so late getting to players that they had already moved the ball by the time he got close.
This is not Greenwood’s fault. You would think after a few games of seeing this he’d either be dropped or improve on it. The fact that he was out there doing this week after week just showed that he wasn’t getting any sort of instruction as to how to actually do things from the coaching staff.
That’s what makes me excited for Ralf - but there’s also going to need to be a buy in from Greenwood.
Under Rangnick Greenwood is going to have to work off the ball, which is not something that he’s done too much in his career. He’s also going to have to put the work in on improving his game in possession.
That’s the other reason I’m excited for Ralf. As I said, Greenwood’s development had begun stagnating under Solskjaer and that’s not just defensively. While Greenwood scores bangers when he’s not doing that he’s not really doing much else.
His decision making this season has been quite terrible. This is something we’ve talked about before. When Greenwood gets the ball on the edge of the box we know he’s going to try and get it on his left foot and blast away. Defenses play him like that, completely ignoring everyone else because they know he’s not going to pass.
It doesn’t matter how many people are in his way, when he wants to shoot he’s going to shoot.
And it only takes Greenwood one superb goal against Leicester for him to start teeing up and trying to replicate it over and over again.
Bad decision making is a bad habit, and the previous coaching regime failed to get through to him to break these habits.
I’m excited for Ralf to come in and (hopefully) break these bad habits and guide him down the right path. For me that starts with getting getting him off the wing and into a more central striker role.
We all know that Greenwood has a devastating right foot inside the box, but outside the box he’s afraid to use it. This prevents him from taking on players and when United are looking to break, he becomes a bottleneck as he’ll always look to cut inside on his left foot which slows things down.
Putting him in a more central role allows him the freedom to make runs all over the pitch, but specifically opens up that left channel to him where he can be so devastating.
He just looks so much more dangerous when he can get his body between the ball and the defender, and it makes him a much more rounded player.
Is Greenwood ready to be a full time Premier League number 9? Probably not. He needs to improve on his headers. He needs to contest more headers. His movement in the box still needs work, and he’s lacking in the physicality department but that may be more from him shying away from it rather than him not being ready for it.
But despite that, he’s not not ready. He may not be great with his head yet but the dude straight up has goal scoring instincts.
You can’t teach instinct.
Greenwood isn’t going to develop any of those areas if he’s not put in a position to. Rangnick has already been asked the question about Greenwood’s position where he called him “a 9.5” which is probably the best way to describe him. He started centrally with United’s second team against Young Boys where he once again3 showed he’s just on a completely different level to the rest of those players, but in both his Premier League appearances under Rangnick he’s come on and played in the duel no. 10 role.
Playing Greenwood out wide (or as one of the duel 10’s in Rangnick’s 4-2-2-2) for the sake of getting him on the pitch is no longer doing him any good.
Is that going to be more difficult because of Cristiano Ronaldo? Absolutely. Greenwood’s skillset doesn’t really compliment Ronaldo’s as split strikers, but let’s call a spade a spade here. You could always just not play Ronaldo from time to time.
Ronaldo has been incredible in the Champions League where he should be first choice but the Premier League is a different story. His 0.44 non-penalty goals per 90 is 16th in the league and his 0.5 non-penalty xG per 90 is fifth best, but most of that came in his first two games. Since the West Ham match his NP goals per 90 is 0.21 and his NPxG per 90 0.33. Not playing a 36 year old striker every match isn’t exactly crazy. You’re not going to win the league anyway and swapping Greenwood in for Ronaldo from time to time shouldn’t hurt you in the top four race. And if not playing Greenwood out of position means he plays five or six fewer matches overall this season then so be it.
Greenwood is an incredible talent and United under Solskjaer really were heading in a direction that could have seen them waste it. I’m extremely trusting of Ralf to be able to put on the path to superstardom and that makes me really excited for the back half of this season.
Greenwood is going to have to fully buy in though. He’s going to have to put in the work. If he does that, the sky is the limit.
Combining Greenwood on the right side with Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Scott McTominay has done him no favors and has greatly hurt United this season. Teams funnel the ball to the right because they know Greenwood, AWB, and McTominay aren’t going to push the ball forward in a dangerous manner.
It’s not a coincidence that United keep more clean sheets when Greenwood isn’t playing RW than when he is.
Just like the League Cup match vs West Ham