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For Mason Greenwood, the sky's the limit

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Manchester United’s teenage sensation has the ability to emulate Bobby Charlton and Wayne Rooney

Manchester United v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

For 17 years, he oscillated the ball from right to left, smashing them from range to the delight of the Stretford End. He did this with such frequency that his goalscoring records for his beloved Manchester United and for England stood for 44 years and 45 years respectively.

The man who broke his records had shown the precocity for greatness in the 2004 European Championship before becoming the most expensive teenager in the same summer. He scored a hat-trick on full debut for his new club against Fenerbahce in the Champions League. However, it wasn’t until later that season that the 19-year-old left everyone absolutely gobsmacked with a humdinger of a strike against Newcastle United.

Today, there is an 18-year-old from Bradford who appears to have inherited the legacy of those two great men. Like Bobby Charlton, he’s not partial towards either foot. Like Wayne Rooney against Newcastle, Mason Greenwood’s 2nd goal in a frenetic game against relegation strugglers Bournemouth has set him apart from his 18-year-old contemporaries and maybe even his star-studded teammates.

The gall to even attempt it and then to so emphatically rifle it into the back of the net. There are few things in football that provide such unrefined elation.

The ubiquitous Bruno Fernandes helped stifle some of the hype around Greenwood last week in an equally impressive showing against Brighton, but Greenwood is fully in the spotlight now and time will tell if he will be at home in these new surroundings.

Much of what defies belief with Greenwood is his finishing ability.

A lot of the discourse around Greenwood this week has been his overperformance on expected goals — that he’s a mathematical anomaly and he’s broken the metric. A new metric altogether maybe? There is always an irrepressible urge from fans to proclaim that their new toy is special.

His 8 goals in the league have come from an expected goal value of just 2.7 (fbref.com). This is a gross overperformance that historically is just not sustainable. And yes, there are exceptions — Leo Messi regularly overperforms his xG and Erling Haaland is doing the same now. Haaland has an xG per 90 of 0.7 this season, Messi had one of 0.78 last season and 0.63 this season.

This suggests that their shot locations are still very good which will increase their propensity to score goals. Greenwood, however, only has an xG per 90 of 0.27 — this suggests that he’s not really getting into good areas, and a there’s likely going to be a dry patch in the future.

Now, you could be like Charles Barkley and completely dismiss analytics and say that Greenwood is overperforming due to talent that will get him through any metric. The expected goals stats aren’t suggesting that Greenwood doesn’t have extraordinary talent.

Rather, examining those metrics are about looking at what he can and should add to his game that’s lacking as of yet. His manager will be the first to address it. Solskjaer has repeatedly suggested that his players score what he calls ‘scrappy goals’ — which is what the metric advocates for.

Now, there are certain skills that Greenwood has clearly acquired at this tender age — the first one being his two-footed ability. We can’t conclude that he’s an ambipedal footballer because most of his goals have been scored with his stronger left-foot. The xG metric has often seen players who can shoot with both feet overperform.

The second skill that Greenwood possesses is his lack of back-lift to catch goalkeepers off guard. His first goal against Brighton was a good example. It’s reminiscent of Harry Kane in his earlier years under Mauricio Pochettino, who’d perfected this sharp-shooting technique.

The third skill, and perhaps the most unique one of the lot, is the ability to put it between a defender’s legs — often coinciding with a near-post finish. This is something that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer himself was accomplished at and Greenwood has picked it up already. Wayne Rooney spoke about this recently when talking about Solskjaer.

Greenwood’s first goal for the club in the Europa League against Astana combined all of these attributes. He used his left foot to deceive the defender and then managed to pass it through the goalkeepers’ legs with his right foot. The frequency at which he’s used all of these attributes posits that he’ll always be an extraordinary finisher. He’s also got the highest rate of shots on target in the current side, at 53.3%.

So why change all that? It’s not so much about changing what Greenwood has, but about what he can add to this. In an interview with the Manchester United YouTube channel, the teenage forward stated how he’s improving his heading ability. That could be a great source of goals. For the youth sides, he was charged with free-kick duties as well.

Greenwood also played centrally while coming through the youth ranks, which could possibly help him get into better locations in the box. Even though he has started to shine on the right of the attack, his long-term future has always been assumed to be as a center forward. However, playing with your back to goal is not an easy skill to develop in senior football, especially in the Premier League. To that end, Greenwood has noticeably put on some muscle mass since the lockdown, and he stands at 181 cm — a good height for a centre-forward.

The only concern here would be that so many of the skills that have been mentioned earlier are also a consequence of facing the goal. Would he have the opportunity to face up defenders as often when playing centrally? To get an objective answer to these and other questions will require a larger sample size.

Still in his nascent stages of development, there is so much still to be revealed about Greenwood, and challenges will come along with tactics to restrict him. When it does happen, it would be beneficial to consider that he’s still learning a lot about his own game and that while he’s likely to continue to overperform his xG, it might not be at the current rate.

History suggests that you can make quite a career out of the kind of ability that Greenwood has. You might even have a stand named after you. No pressure, kid.