Manchester United gave their fans a rare night of no agony. The Red Devils easily brushed aside Partizan Belgrade 3-0 to secure qualification to the knockout rounds of the Europa League with two group games to spare.
It was a great performance from top to bottom but before we get ahead of ourselves let’s remember, it’s just Partizan. United winning 3-0 at home is great, but this is a game that they should win 3-0 at home.
Partizan’s level is not the same as even the lowest teams in the Premier League so it’s hard to really take anything away from this game but there were two things that stood out: Juan Mata and Mason Greenwood.
Mata showed that he deserves a chance to get a run in the no. 10 role. 18-year-old Mason Greenwood showed why fans are so excited about him but also showed why he hasn’t been playing as often as we’d like.
The number 10 position has been United’s black hole all season. They’ve tried Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira, and Mata there at one point or another with no success coming for any of them.
Thursday night was a different story. With Mata playing centrally among Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood, United’s attack was buzzing. Mata brings a different element from Lingard and Pereira with his movement. He never stops, always looking to make a run either for himself or to create space for a teammate.
Look at this play early on.
Mata starts it by laying the ball off to Aaron Wan-Bissaka down the wing. Mata makes a quick dart to play a 1-2. When he gets the ball back, he doesn’t just take it down the wing, he turns inside and tries to play another 1-2 with Greenwood. Most United players would have stopped their runs after one of those passes. Mata doesn’t, and had Greenwood’s pass gone through, Mata would have been in on goal.
Later Martial gets the ball on the break. Mata is running behind him and, anticipating Martial charging to his right, starts to run towards the middle. Martial pulls up and Mata smartly adjusts his run, now going off to the right so Martial can play him in. The final ball isn’t there, but that’s been the story of United’s season. Nobody can play the final ball.
We see another example above in this ball from Rashford, to Mata, who tries to back heel back to Rashford. It ultimately didn’t work, but not only do Pereira and Lingard not have the touch necessary to pull that off, they don’t even think like that. That’s the edge Mata brings.
Mata last played in the number 10 role against Newcastle where — to put it kindly — he was bad. Despite playing in a central role, Mata seemed to constantly drift out towards the left, limiting his effectiveness. This also could have been because of the personnel on the field. Without Martial, United had to play Rashford up top, and Pereira out wide. It was terribly unbalanced.
With Martial back United now have a fearsome front three with either Greenwood or James playing on the right. That’s where Mata’s versatility gives him the edge.
Greenwood is a natural striker who likes to tuck inside. Mata is a smart player who likes to move, making it easy for him to push outside in the space vacated by Greenwood. The same thing happens when Martial drops deep to get the ball — Mata doesn’t mind being the furthest one forward and running in behind the defense.
Pereira and Lingard simply don’t have that component to their games. It makes United’s attack all the more fluid and dynamic. Mata may struggle to play 90 minutes these days but Solskjaer should certainly start him against Brighton. If you have the lead after 60-65 minutes you can replace him with Pereira or Lingard and play a bit more defensively.
Let’s start with the obvious. Why do we want to see more of Greenwood?
Holy ****! How pretty is that? The first touch, the calmness to put that on his left foot, his presence of mind in the box, the finish. Marcus Rashford could really benefit from having that kind of poise in the box, especially after skying two chances over the bar because he didn’t settle the ball.
And Greenwood isn’t just good in the box.
Greenwood chasing down the defender and (let’s be honest, generously) getting the assist on Martial’s goal. Beautiful.
There’s so much to like about this kid. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer even said it himself that Greenwood is the best finisher at the club.
So why doesn’t he play more? Why, on a team that really struggles to score goals, has Greenwood not been given a league start?
Solskjaer was asked that same question after the game Thursday night. His answer alluded to what he’s seen from Greenwood on the training ground, as well as what we saw on the pitch Thursday night.
“Mason is going to have a very big career,” Solskjaer said. “But sometimes it’s not the right time to play him. He knows why he hasn’t played as much.
“If he’d really stamped his authority in training every single day and been the best option he would have played every game. But as a young boy you expect ups and downs and he’s had some downs. But I think he is on his way up again.”
The truth is Greenwood isn’t fully ready yet. Not in terms of talent or skill — he’s got plenty of that in spades. It’s all on the mental side of things. He’s only 18, he’s got plenty of time, but he’s still learning the system and still learning what his responsibilities are.
“We’re taking our time with him. It’s been a difficult period. Anthony has been away, to put all the weight on his shoulder wasn’t right, either. I think we are finding the right balance between playing him, resting him and training him.”
There’s really nothing wrong with this sentiment. Greenwood is a natural striker. It’s the position he’s played his whole life and the position that comes naturally to him. Solskjaer makes a good point that when Martial went down it would have been unfair to ask Greenwood to lead the line at such a young age.
So why not the right wing? Because he’s still learning that position. In Greenwood’s first start vs Astana, he was shifted from the right side to a central role at halftime. Thursday night there were more growing pains.
Greenwood has great instincts, and those instincts tell him to get to dangerous areas in front of goal. That’s great, but when you’re playing down the right you also need to handle the responsibilities of a right winger.
What Greenwood needs to do is learn how to play within the system while also not losing his great instincts. As the manager, Solskjaer’s job is to help him do that.
Take this situation in the first half.
With the ball on the left side of the field, it’s natural for the right winger to come to the middle. But eventually United switch play, in their famous slow too-many-passes kind of way. Greenwood doesn’t react; he stays central essentially in line with Mata behind him and Martial wide on the left.
The ball makes its way over to Wan-Bissaka but Greenwood doesn’t help him. He should have run into the channel to give him an option. Instead he stays in the middle. Wan-Bissaka is now one on one with the defender, who has two other defenders to help him. This essentially gives him no options and he has to go back to Fred.
Later, United get out on the break with Wan-Bissaka. Watch Greenwood. He breaks to the middle, even though Martial is right behind him. Those are his striker instincts at play: go to the middle, go towards the goal. Instead he should have again run towards the channel, which would pulled the center back with him, and opened up a near post run for Martial. Instead, neither of them are open and even if Wan-Bissaka doesn’t mishit that ball, the odds of it being successful are slim.
And then there’s defense.
Solskjaer’s press requires the entire team to work as a unit. When they do, United are very hard to get by. When one unit blows their assignment, teams can break easily.
When Greenwood does his job, it works great.
Greenwood waits until the right moment, tracks the man with the ball, and Partizan turn it over. Perfect.
But too often, Greenwood was caught drifting around in no man’s land. Take a look at this instance in the second half.
Despite playing a 4-2-3-1, Greenwood drops very deep, and comes wandering inside turning this into a 4-4-2.
United are playing with narrow fullbacks. Young and Wan-Bissaka were staying close to the CBs all game, leaving the flanks to be covered by Greenwood and Rashford.
Greenwood follows the Partizan player into the middle of the field, but by doing so he leaves the fullback, his man, wide open.
Watch Greenwood here (starting at the bottom of the screen). He’s with his man, with his man, with his man, and then he just... leaves him? He goes towards the ball (unnecessarily) but ends up in that no man’s land that Victor Lindelöf was in on the Bournemouth goal last week.
About halfway through that gif, you can literally see him remember he has a man to cover, as he looks up and then sprints back into the box to pick up his man. It’s just minor things like that, switching off for just one second and losing your man. You can get away with that against Partizan but you may not be able to get away with it in the Premier League.
There’s not one major thing holding Greenwood back. It’s just a lot of really small things. That’s good, because those small things are easy to fix.
Remember, there’s a difference between coming on when you’re chasing a goal and the manager is throwing caution to the wind, and playing from the outset. A defensive lapse because you’re cheating forward is okay in those late game situations. At the beginning of the match, you need to be able to play as one unit of 11 players, and if you’re constantly switching off while defending, you’re going to get exposed.
Greenwood has all the skill and talent to thrive at this level. He just needs to work on the mental side of things. He’ll get there, and he’ll get there sooner rather than later. We just need to be a little more patient.