Mason Greenwood has evidently bulked up during his time out of the spotlight and the 18-year-old is benefiting from that now. He looks physically ready for Premier League football now and he’s made a stunning impact since the season returned.
But the development of precocious teenage footballers never runs in a straight line and they need careful management, in a physical sense as much as an emotional one. Right now Greenwood is one of the Premier League’s hottest properties, but don’t be surprised if he’s back on the bench for United soon, even if it’s only briefly.
Greenwood has played 355 minutes of football since United returned to action on June 14. The 18-year-old has never had a workload like that before and while he has the advantage of youth and the fitness work he’s been doing on his side, the development that his body has gone through in the last few months will take some getting used to as well. This a time when young footballers can be susceptible to injury.
Right now Greenwood is clearly part of United’s best XI and that’s unlikely to change for a very long time, but that doesn’t mean he will be starting every week, something Ole Gunnar Solskjaer twice hinted at after the forward scored twice against Bournemouth on Saturday.
Greenwood now has 15 goals for the season, a fantastic return for an 18-year-old, but his game relies on explosiveness, whether through his turn of pace or the brutal power he can unleash when shooting with either foot. That has to be protected.
Speaking to BT Sport straight after the game, Solskjaer said: “He is a very, very talented boy and we will nurture him and manage him as well as we can and give him more and more minutes.”
In his press conference, he added: “He’s a humble boy, he wants to learn, he listens, he’s worked hard; you can see his fitness is getting better and better. He’s just a young boy who will fill out. He’s exciting to work with and we’ll keep on building him up in the gym and on the pitch.”
The key phrases from the Norwegian here are “manage him as well as we can” and “keep on building him up in the gym”. Solskjaer knows Greenwood isn’t the finished article physically.
Comparisons are difficult between young players, but the Premier League has seen Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney emerge as generational talents only to slow down as they got older, in part due to the amount of first-team football they played as teenagers. There are caveats there, Owen had hamstring problems which robbed him of his best asset, his pace, while Rooney didn’t look after his body as he perhaps should have done, although as United and England’s record goalscorer he didn’t too badly either.
Injuries at this stage of a career can have a significant impact however. Greenwood’s development arc is peaking now, he has been handled perfectly by United so far, but Solskjaer will be wary of putting too much pressure on him. That’s why we might see the precocious attacker back on the bench in the next week, with Daniel James getting a start instead.
In the long-term Greenwood might well develop into a No. 9, but for now his development is served by the wide right role. He offers better balance to the side than James, but it’s the long-term Solskjaer will be looking at if he does leave the 18-year-old out.